By Gigi Wood
IOWA CITY – They will serve a little of both and that will be enough.
Some cook pizza, some dish up pasta, but few locally-owned Italian restaurants in Iowa City do both. Basta, a new Italian restaurant opening at 121 Iowa Ave. in Iowa City in the spot left vacant by the recently-closed 808 Restaurant and Nightclub, will open by mid-June.
It will be run by Jack Piper and James Adrian, who co-own Atlas next door and Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, at 1940 Lower Muscatine Road. For their newest venture, they are teaming up with Brady McDonald, a long-time cook at Atlas who recently completed culinary school in Florence, Italy.
“We always thought the best philosophy is promotion from within,” Mr. Piper said of Mr. McDonald’s move from cook to part-owner and chef of Basta. “You learn from the bottom-up, you’ve done the jobs; there’s no (job) ceiling.”
It was at the Italian culinary school, where instructors would say, “Basta, basta,” which translates to “Enough, enough,” in English. The term is often used to refer to Americans’ penchant for excess and overconsumption. Mr. McDonald was taught to cook with simplicity, using three or four ingredients in each meal.
“The Italian culture keeps it simple; three ingredients and you’ll be fine,” Mr. Piper said. “More is not better. Enough is enough. And that’s what we’re doing with our menu. It’s a very small menu. You don’t need 30 beers on draft. Basta.”
The owners of the new restaurant liked the concept and adopted it for the restaurant. The menu will include appetizers such as meat and cheese plates, olives, stuffed dates and bruschetta. Basta’s bruschetta will be a little different from what is found at other local eateries, however. Instead of serving the dish with tomatoes in the winter, when tomatoes are out of season, Basta will substitute in squash and other items.
“The mantra we have is, if we put out a quality product, if we exceed your expectations, it will work,” he said.
Although it doesn’t market itself as a strictly organic or locally-produced foods restaurant, like Devotay or the Motley Cow, Mr. Piper says he often buys organic and local produce for Atlas. He said he is the second-largest buyer of basil from a local grower, next to the New Pioneer Co-op. He said 99 percent of the food served at Atlas is made from scratch, as is everything at Jimmy Jack’s, except the French fries. The commitment to local has a limit, however, Mr. Piper said.
“People want seafood and you can’t get that local,” he said.
Basta’s menu includes marinara, margherita, salsiccia, pepperoni, four cheese and duck confit Neapolitan, thin-crust pizzas that will be cooked in a 1,000-degree wood-fire brick oven. That’s the temperature Pagliai’s Pizza, 302 E. Bloomington St., cooks its pizzas, which are prepared with family recipes from Florence, Italy.
Mr. Piper points out that Pagliai’s doesn’t serve pasta dishes and restaurants such as Givanni’s and Brown Bottle in downtown Iowa City, don’t serve pizza. Baroncini, an Italian restaurant slated to open at 385 E. College St. this week, has less seating than Basta. Mr. Piper said Basta is not opening in response to Baroncini or any other Italian restaurant in town but rather, as a response to the owners of Basta’s desire for a locally-owned Italian venue with a comfortable atmosphere and affordable prices.
“We dabbled talking about an Italian restaurant, I really like Italian food, I’ve traveled to Italy multiple times, so we basically started making a template of how this could work,” Mr. Piper said.
When the 808 space opened up, the landlord was willing to negotiate rent because the property was in such disrepair, a sizeable amount of money needed to be invested for renovation. The other pieces, such as size, capacity and décor, fit the business’ needs, as well.
“This is a highly resilient community and it’s a two-way street because the people of Iowa City support locally-owned restaurants,” he said. “I couldn’t put it in another market because another market wouldn’t embrace it.”
Pasta dishes will include spaghetti Bolognese at $8 for the small portion and $14 for the larger portion. Others on the menu are ravioli, tortelli, fettuccine and risotto plates. Steak, chicken, pork chops and seafood will also be available. The dessert menu will feature tiramisu, Nutella panna cotta and gelato flights. A lever-operated espresso machine will serve coffee.
In the spirit of the meaning of Basta, the restaurant will carry a limited number of beers and wines. Italian wines will be served, such as chardonnays and cabernets.
Construction crews are renovating the former bar space, painting the walls and refinishing the woodwork. Marble is being installed to the bar top, European tappers will pour the beer and retro New York hexagon tile is being laid on the floors. Chandeliers will hang from the ceilings. The Country French-style chairs arrived last week to give the restaurant a rustic European feel, Mr. Piper said. The basement will be used for food preparation and storage.