Sometimes your expectations, well...Let's just say that from the outside, Sweet Basil resembles some kind of candy shop, what with the brightly striped awning and cute name.The only hints of its true nature--apart from the "Italian Cafe" printed on the awning--is a small patio decorated with an classical-style fountain. Yet even then, you think cappuccino and perhaps a little gelato.
Step inside and, um...
It looks old, dimmed by wood and cluttered with just about every cliche possible. Looking straight on from my booth, I could stare at a copy of the Mona Lisa. By my head, a scene from Venice. Above and everywhere, old wine bottles and other things that speak of Italy. Even trapped under the booth's glass-topped table, where cutouts from magazines and cards shows different snaps from the old country--with the exception of a California wine label amongst the other stuff decorating my place.
As far as old school Italian restaurants go, Sweet Basil isn't all that bad. It's a menu full of Alfredos and Marsalas and Parmigianas and Scampis and such, each coaxed to a familiar level. A cream of mushroom soup emphasized the cream part, with a rich taste and cashmere mouth feel. Although full of fungal bits, only a faint mineral background emerged. But for a buck...
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Yep, $1 for the soup of the day.
Their take on carbonara is hearty, almost stoic--sitting there in a clinging film of cream broken only by pieces of bacon. Now, some people claim cracked pepper is an option in carbonara. I consider it, however, an essential: specks of black dotting the mound of spaghetti and sauce look like the coal dust spotting miners as they emerged for a filling dinner. Hence, according to legend, the dish's name.
Sweet Basil's is lacking in carbon. Yet the tart and smokey bacon scattered in the bowl provides some contrast to the velvety sauce and pasta. In fact, the meat stands out in this presentation. It's a good example of what the restaurant does: basic, hearty, time-tested fare--the sort of stuff that once dominated America's Italian restaurants.
Worth a drive? Not especially, depending on how far. A drive of any distance and you'll probably want cooking with flair. But for those who live in the area and want a meal that requires no deconstruction, yeah.