In case you hadn’t noticed, Dorchester has a new Italian restaurant. Basilica is a little gem of a place, offering mouth-watering pizzas and mains to rival the finest eateries in town.
This is a far cry from the ubiquitous chains, pumping out factory food at inflated prices.
Owner-chef Gennaro Marzano and his partner Sara Fernandes make all their own food by hand, with ingredients brought in fresh from Italy every week. The pizzas are even baked in a wood-fired oven. Their only concession to modernity is a dough-mixer.
Gennaro is well known in Dorchester, having started the popular pizza takeaway Nonno Pepe a year ago – hidden away down an alley off Trinity Street, just opposite the restaurant.
Such was his success he had a lot of calls from people asking if they could dine out there – and it set his mind thinking. It had always been his intention to open a restaurant, and when the former newsagent’s in Trinity Street came up, he grabbed the chance.
Gennaro had to have that wood-fired oven specially made to fit the kitchen – but as diners will testify, it was worth the cost.
“People keep coming back,” says Gennaro. “We’ve had a lot of good reviews on Google and TripAdvisor – I was expecting a slow start but we have been busy since day one.”
So what fired up Gennaro’s passion for food – and what brought him from Italy to England?
He was, he says, “Brought up in the kitchen”, watching his grandmother cook. “When I was a young boy my grandmother looked after me – my mum and dad were always working. When you see your grandmother cooking you fall in love with what she does – it tastes completely different.
“I was there looking at her mixing ingredients and it was like attending a science class, watching chemicals being mixed, but instead mixing ingredients.”
He was brought up in Naples, home of the pizza, and remembers “seeing this big guy in his chef’s whites with a passion for what he was doing, teaching people what to do – just leading them in doing the right things. It got me, ever since I was a young kid.”
Being a chef is not for everyone, he says. “It’s a vocation, a way of life. You don’t decide to be a chef, it’s almost as if the life of a chef chooses you. Very few can make a good living out of it, the rest get chewed up by this kind of life.”
Gennaro trained in Capri, then started to travel around the world to learn his trade, visiting Canada, Spain, France, and finally England.
So what made him come to the UK? “I loved the history of the country – England back then was still a sovereign country with the Queen, and that intrigued me, almost 30 years ago. Yes it was grey, yet it was cold, but I learned a lot from this country.”
In 1997 Gennaro opened his first restaurant in Clapham with a friend, later selling it to work for a bigger company and learn the business side of things.
“Working for big companies is bad – you see them treating food the way it should never be treated,” he says. “That’s when I decided to open something independent in a small town.
“I was passing by one day with my girlfriend and as soon as I entered over the bridge and saw the Corn Exchange clocktower I fell in love with the town. I said to my girlfriend, ‘This is the place I want to open something’. And a year later I opened Nonno Pepe.
“Ever since the local community has taken us under their wing. We are very well treated by the people of Dorchester. We have been accepted very well by the community here and I want to thank everyone for that.”
His partner Sara, from Coimbra, Portugal, is a fully-trained cordon bleu chef – they met working at a hotel in Jersey.
Secret in the dough
But just what is it that makes Gennaro’s pizzas so amazing?
“The secret is in the dough – everyone has their own recipe,” he says. “Each pizza is only as good as the next one. We are still experimenting – we are always searching for perfection.
“The most important thing is the yeast. My dough is made 24 hours before we sell it and we use very little yeast. My pizza is very digestible – you will never have a thirst during the night, you will never feel bloated, because the yeast is in very small quantities.
“From stretching to cooking to the tomato sauce, everything is made by us and nothing is bought in apart from the raw ingredients – and everything comes from Italy. We only use fresh buffalo mozzarella, which comes in every week.”
Gennaro says buffalo milk is particularly good for people who are dairy intolerant.
When my wife Jayne and I ate at Basilico, the food was simply superb. We started with antipasti of Tagliere Misto – a sharing platter of Spianata, Parma ham, mortatella and salami with bruschetta, olives and buffalo mozzarella. Simply delicious!
Other options include Affettato Misto, a selection of cured meat, olives, buffalo mozzarella, and Nduija sausages, with grilled artichokes, served with focaccia and home-made bread; and Bruschetta di Bufalo – heritage tomatoes with red onion and roasted garlic, marinated in extra virgin olive oil, on toasted bread with fresh buffalo mozzarella, green pesto and Parmigiano cheese.
For mains we both went for pizzas, though the menu also includes pasta options such as Lasagna and Penne al Pollo – penne pasta in a creamy chicken sauce with tomato, herbs, mozzarella and Parmigiano.
Jayne chose the Pizza Contadina – a vegetarian option with roasted vegetables, pumpkins, cream, mozzarella, roasted sweet peppers and caramelised onions.
I opted for the Quattro Stagioni, literally ‘four seasons’, with four different flavours – mozzarella, tomato sauce and salami; burrata, Parma ham, rocket and sun-blushed tomatoes; plum tomato sauce, mozzarella and mixed vegetables; and mozzarella, cream, ham and mushrooms.
Both pizzas were mouth-watering, with that stunning, hand-made, wood-fired pizza base thin and crispy at the edges, just like it should be – the Italian way!