When Renato Donzelli was a little boy growing up in his native Venezuela surrounded by his Italian family, little did he know what life had in store for him. His days were filled with laughter and fun times, just like any other child, but his path was also defined by the time spent with the matriarchs of the family.
“I remember making fresh pasta with my mother and grandmother,” Renato fondly recalls. It is these memories, as well as the ones of family gatherings that ultimately revolved around food—homemade meals filled with fresh ingredients—that have stayed with Renato all these years. The impact that these early and lasting reminiscences have had on his life is clear.
Today, Renato is the chef and owner of Basso Café in Norwalk, Connecticut. In the three and a half years since opening its doors in September 2007—just months before the start of the new millennium’s recession, arguably the worst since the Great Depression—Basso Café, with its Latin Mediterranean fusion cuisine, has managed to weather more than the storm; they have ridden it out. And now, Zagat has rated Basso Café as the top Mediterranean restaurant in Connecticut.
Does it have anything to do with luck and being in the right place at the right time? Perhaps. But more likely, it has everything to do with the amazing food that is coming from Renato’s kitchen—a result of his creativity, innovation and steadfast belief in providing his customers with a quality product that just so happens to be delectable.
A well-articulated sentiment coming from a man who, upon first landing on American soil in 1995, had difficulty speaking the language, few prospects for employment and only his desire to succeed to keep him going.
Renato’s tenacity, work ethic and unstoppable drive ultimately led him to his American dream. After, working in various restaurant kitchens as sous chef, chef and even running his own catering business, he decided the time was right to open his own restaurant. After a year of planning, Basso Café was born.
Basso Café, named for Campobasso, a city in Southern Italy where his dad was born, is Renato’s labor of love.
“Everything that you see here is the way that I am,” Renato says as he looks around the dining room of the restaurant that is his creation. “The colors reflect my mood. The music, the way that I arrange the silverware, everything; it’s a combination of the elements that feed my personality.”
All of the elements—from the striking and colorful décor to the jazzy tunes floating from the speakers to the comforting aromas wafting through the air—come together to create the backdrop for a quality dining experience.
To say that Renato took a giant leap of faith with Basso Café is a bit of an understatement. Although encouraged by those who were intrigued by his creativity and innovation, he had not done his research on the Norwalk neighborhood. In terms of the type of cuisine that was lacking in the community, “I didn’t know what was being offered here,” he says. “I didn’t know if there were any other fine dining restaurants nearby.” That dicey move proved to be a turning point for Renato. The risk paid off.
“Now I have clientele from New York City, Wilton, New Canaan, Greenwich, Darien, Stamford—from all over. I think it’s mostly word of mouth.”
It’s a far cry from the way things were in the beginning at Basso Café. Initially, Renato only offered a lunch-styled menu. And customers were not exactly breaking down the doors to get in. “People were curious at first. They would come in to look at the menu and then leave,” Renato says with a slow grin. Eventually, they wanted more.
Was it the food that was giving them trepidations? As it turned out, far from it. “After a while, more and more people would eat here. Then people were calling me and thanking me for coming to the neighborhood. I had never seen that happen before.” It seems as if that little section of Norwalk, unlike South Norwalk, was in need of a fine dining restaurant that wouldn’t put a strain on the bank account.
And speaking of the food, Renato more than delivers in and out of the kitchen. His inspired menu is a reflection of his moods and portions of the menu can change as often as every three to four months. “I may wake up one day and be inspired to try something new,” he says.
Experimentation in the average kitchen can bring about more failure than success, but Renato supports stepping out on a limb. “When you’re cooking, you don’t have to be afraid of failing when you try something different,” he encourages. “You’re a cook; you can fix it. I’m trying to make an evolution of not only the food, the methods of cooking, the ingredients, the flavors and the textures, but of the entire dining experience.”
That evolution has led him to make a few recent modifications to the menu, including the addition of several appetizers, one of which is the Boquerones a la vinagreta, white anchovies served with shallots champagne vinaigrette. The dinner menu sees the addition of Seafood Parrilla with grilled Bronzino medallion, large shrimp, squid, scallops, clams and mussels served with seasonal grilled vegetable stack and sauce gribiche.
Renato puts a lot of thought into the ingredients that he selects for his dishes. While much of his produce, vegetables and meats are locally sourced, some of his items are also imported from Italy, such as the mozzarella di bufala, to ensure a top quality product. As a throwback to his dining rituals growing up, he also tries to use organic whenever possible.
To maintain freshness, Basso Café does not freeze any of its food. The restaurant also cures its own pork, and all of the desserts are made in-house. Although not formerly trained as a pastry chef, Renato is self-taught in the discipline and has mastered the creation of some very impressive desserts.
One such dessert, a creation of his own, is the Berry Napoleon, a magnificent presentation of three thin lemon zest tuiles layered with fresh berries and lemon curd. I had the occasion to taste this during a chat with Renato and shamelessly finished it in record time. Yes, it was that good.
Seeing my reaction and obvious satisfaction with the Berry Napoleon sparked feelings of humble pride in Renato. He summed up his role as a chef and restaurateur, not in terms of the monetary value that he gains from the experience but, rather, the intrinsic warm and fuzzy that it inspires. “It feels good knowing you have something that people appreciate.”
Renato Donzelli has an infatuation with food. And he believes in quality above all else. It is this kind of quiet passion—displayed throughout Renato’s cooking and permeating the dining room—that compels loyal customers to count Basso Café as one of their favorite dining spots. If you make it one of yours, come prepared. Basso Café does not serve alcoholic beverages, but they do have a BYOB policy along with a $10 corking fee per 750ml bottle.
124 New Canaan Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06850