Three Months in, Basilico Trattoria Eyes Expansion

By Doug Wallack

Three months after its opening in downtown Hopewell, Basilico Trattoria is going strong. In an area rich with Italian restaurants of all stripes, co-owners Kari LaSpisa and Joe Trani have aimed to carve out a niche for themselves as purveyors of authentic Neapolitan cuisine. “The concept we have here is fresh food, made to order, by an Italian chef,” Ms. LaSpisa explains, “not several people in the kitchen — like a line cook set-up — it’s one chef cooking your food for you, to order.” 

That one chef is Mr. Trani. Five nights a week, with only ten burners at his disposal, he takes on an ambitious culinary balancing act in the kitchen of their 46-seat restaurant — searing pork chops, boiling fresh potato gnocchi, assembling all manner of antipasti. The kitchen is so small that there’s no room for anyone else, but even if space were not a factor, Mr. Trani prefers the degree of control and consistency his situation affords him. “The hands are different,” he says. Even when closely following a recipe, any chef will cook with his own idiosyncrasies and to his own taste. At Basilico, diners get only his taste.

Mr. Trani was born in Princeton into a family of restaurateurs. When he was 6 years old, they moved back to Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where he soaked up local traditions, and eventually attended culinary school, worked in kitchens, and opened two restaurants. Ultimately, the beguiling siren song of the Garden State worked its charms on Mr. Trani and, after nearly three decades away, he returned to New Jersey.

Basilico Trattoria is the third restaurant he and Ms. LaSpisa have opened together since then. The other two — Al Dente, in Hillsborough, and Taste, in Warren — they have since sold. Basilico features casual dining, with an emphasis on local ingredients. The main dining space is a single open room with a high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Ample natural light filters in through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the room’s length. In fair weather, there is also outdoor seating on the patio, adjacent to the two raised garden beds where Ms. LaSpisa and Mr. Trani grow some of their own herbs.

Popular dishes included the grilled calamari, the bruschetta siciliana, the gnocchi frutti di mare, and the shrimp ravioli. In the future, Mr. Trani hopes to push customers beyond their usual Italian dining experiences with coniglio all’Ischitana: a cacciatore-like rabbit dish from his family’s native Ischia.

But the couple’s ambition extends farther than additions to their menu. Buoyed by the positive response to Basilico Trattoria, they plan to open Basilico Paninoteca — a high-end Italian sandwich shop serving lunch — on Main Street in Pennington late this summer.

Running a restaurant as they do, with a core staff of two, is far from easy. The cost of quality ingredients is high, and the work is high-stress. Still, Ms. LaSpisa says she is happy with the result so far. “It feels good that we’re doing something no one else is doing,” she says.