Our first visit there on a very busy Saturday night started out a bit shaky and could've foreshadowed a bad evening. We arrived on time for our 7:30 p.m. reservations, but due to circumstances beyond our control, there were just the two of us instead of the planned four people. This bit of information seemed to puzzle the folks at the front, and saying something about the area being "bottled up," they told us we'd have to wait.
So we did, in the cool, dark cocktail lounge that harkens back to a more relaxed time. The back bar is sunken; the décor is dark--I especially liked the lamps, shaped like a bunch of grapes--and wine glasses are filled almost to the brim. Purists might disdain this last touch, since there is no room for the proverbial swirl, but the wine was good, so why quibble? The wine list offers many good options that aren't found too many places in Tucson.
Ten minutes later, we were escorted through the dining room to a cozy booth that overlooked the rest of the room. Another retro touch, I must add, are the individual rheostats at each booth so diners can "create" their own mood (or in my case, read the menu better). If the lighting seems a relic from your parents' dining room, it could be because Bazil's has been in business for 25 years. Obviously, they're onto something.
Our server, in spite of being swamped, was tableside with a smile in a matter of minutes. She gave us a detailed rundown of the specials, of which there were many. There were so many options, in fact, a printout of the daily specials might've been a bit of help.
Bazil's offers both Italian and Continental specialties on the regular menu. You'll find everything from spaghetti marinara to roast leg of lamb to the house specialty, cioppino. Entrées come with the antipasto salad and pasta fagioli soup. There are other accompaniments, too, but more about those later.
The appetizer list is heavy on clam dishes, but our server told us there were no clams that night. Now, this could've been a major problem, but as we were doing research, we smiled and ordered the toasted ravioli ($4.95) and the baked escargot ($10.95). We also ordered our entrées, in deference to the jammed house. John ordered the veal piccata ($22.95) and I asked for the tortellini in a gorgonzola and mushroom cream sauce ($14.95).
Our appetizers arrived hot and sizzling. My escargot were tops! Buttery, garlicky, laced with just a touch of cheese and served with toasted Italian bread, they were so good that I could've eaten another eight or so. John's ravioli were also very good. Because they were "toasted" instead of fried, they weren't loaded down with oil. You could taste the filling, pasta and breading.
Then came the antipasto salad. Everyone at the table shares the salad; it comes on one plate, and everyone digs in. Iceberg lettuce is topped with cheese, salami, ham, onions, green peppers and a perfectly seasoned vinaigrette.
Then came the soup, which I thought was only fair. Tomato-based, it could've used more pasta and fagioli, but to Bazil's credit, there was more of both in my bowl on our second visit, and the broth had more flavor. Serving both salad and soup is another retro touch, but because there is sooooo much food served here, I doubt diners would object to making a choice of one or the other.
Our entrées arrived without much of a wait, and the portions were huge. John's veal was great: thin slices of tender veal in a lemony, caper sauce. My tortellini, on the other hand, was only so-so. The sauce was overly rich and clouded the taste of the pasta's filling. It was, in fact, much better the next day--cold, the flavors of the pasta were definitely more pronounced.
Dessert was tiramisu. We could only do a bite or two each, not quite enough to judge the treat, so it went home with all the other leftovers.
Our second visit was on a Wednesday evening. Understandably, the place was almost empty; it was, after all, the middle of the week in the middle of the summer in Tucson. As the evening progressed, though, tables began to fill.
Service was just as bright and helpful, and the list of specials was again a little overwhelming. We stuck to the regular menu. John ordered the shrimp cocktail ($9.95) and the New York Strip, medium ($24.95). Clams were available that night, so I ordered baked clams ($10.95) and the house special, cioppino ($32.95). We also got our choice of side dishes, those accompaniments I spoke of earlier. I ordered spaghetti marinara and John had the baked potato.
John's shrimp cocktail--I think there were five butterflied shrimp--was ice-cold and served with some of the best restaurant cocktail sauce I've had in awhile. There was nothing wimpy about this stuff. You could actually feel the kick of the horseradish. My clams were teeny, but oh-so-good. Breaded and baked, they carried just a hint of garlic.
Our entrées were splendid. John's steak was a tad underdone, but the tenderness and deep meaty flavor more than made up for it. It was served in a bowl, with au jus and matchstick fries. With his baked potato side, that's two potatoes. Again with the lots of food!
My cioppino could easily have fed two. A rich, spicy marinara sauce held three huge crab legs, oodles of shrimp and clams, scallops and chunks of white fish. Digging out the crabmeat from the shells was messy, but messy in a good way.
We ordered the tiramisu again, and the flavors were well balanced. Not too much chocolate, not too much hazelnut.
If a restaurant can be faulted for serving too much food, then put a check next to Basil's. But the next day, as you're enjoying the tasty leftovers from your previous evening's dinner, you'll agree that Bazil's portions might be just the right size.