Editor's note: Alison Arnett recently retired from the Globe. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new restaurant critic.
On a recent Sunday, Paul Levy , the president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center but disguised in full cycling regalia, was in Needham nearing the end of a 25-mile bike ride when the craving came over him.
"We have to go to Sweet Basil. I must have their ravioli," Levy recalls telling his bicycling companions.
So it was. Levy parked his bike, threaded his way through the sidewalk crowd awaiting tables, and placed a takeout order for three entree portions of the handmade ravioli with ricotta, mascarpone, Romano, and goat cheese. After biking the 4.3 miles to his Newton home, he returned by car to pick up dinner.
Those three orders of ravioli, he said, were so ample they fed five, with leftovers.
If Levy's dinner preparations were out of the ordinary, so too is the way Sweet Basil's chef/owner, Dave Becker, chooses to do business. Becker, 31, has been at the helm of the Needham Center restaurant for nearly six years. He doesn't take reservations. He doesn't take credit cards. He says he hasn't raised prices in six years . He doesn't have a beer-and-wine license. In fact, he says, he recently turned one down -- and its subsequent profits -- because his regular customers like to bring in their own fine wines, and even an occasional Bud Light, to complement traditional Italian fare that is very often excellent.
Like some North End restaurants, Sweet Basil doesn't serve dessert: The entrees are so large that if Becker offered me a cannoli, I'd have to put it in my pocket. Serendipitously, however, Caffe Mucca Blu, just around the corner on Highland Avenue, serves wonderful gelato and other Italian sweets.
If Milton, where I live, had a restaurant like Sweet Basil, (indeed, if Milton had any restaurant), property values might quickly approach those in Needham.
Which is not to say Sweet Basil has achieved perfection. I dined there twice. On the first visit, early on a slow Tuesday evening, the service -- thank you, Kristen! -- and the food were excellent. I had the best veal marsala I have had in a very long time in a sauce all the richer from using port instead of marsala and blended prunes and figs. My wife, Barbara, continued singing the praises of the vegetarian lasagna; she was still eating leftovers three days later.
My second visit, with six guests, was on Mother's Day. When I called Becker afterward , he immediately expressed concern -- before I could -- noting that the holiday's crush of diners had diminished the kitchen's quality. This spring, Sweet Basil doubled its seating capacity to 50. And Mother's Day was expectedly very busy. The service was noticeably slower and the kitchen not as consistent, though there were several dishes that were excellent.
But not those of my friend Sam, nor his partner, Barbara. Sam's skillet-seared sirloin over a three-bean ragu came in gunmetal gray -- far from the medium-rare he ordered. But Sam is fussy. Barbara, however, had cause for disappointment. Her gnocchi with wild mushrooms and gorgonzola was, to be polite, barely edible, the consistency of tiny rubber balls. Two of my other guests were mildly disappointed: The Bolognese sauce was salty . The chicken parmesan was ordinary, too cheesy. This is like saying Switzerland has too many mountains.
But Barbara's entree followed a fabulous appetizer: steamed mussels in a delicious garlic, wine, and tomato broth -- heaped atop a large crostini that made the digging worthwhile.
Which reminds me of the baskets of sourdough bread. They're terrific, all the more so because of the rich pesto dip -- without pine nuts -- a house specialty. Sweet Basil makes five gallons of the dip every two days. Becker should sell it by the quart.
Odd that the gnocchi was subpar. The risotto of the day -- a dish so temperamental that those Italian restaurants that do offer it do it poorly -- was nearly perfect: Arborio rice with barley added was al dente, the creamy sauce enlivened by the flavor of carrots and onions carmelized with maple and vinegar.
Sweet Basil is the antithesis of restaurants that charge way too much for way too little. Take Becker's so-called appetizers, the risotto being one, sufficient as an entree. So, too, was the delicious pan-roasted mozzarella with garlic crumbs in marinara sauce, enough for two or three, as was the baked gouda in phyllo with fresh berries. I can't blame Sweet Basil too much for the forgettable gnocchi: Barbara's mussels appetizer was a full meal in itself.
Of course, the entrees are large enough to share. Excellent among them were the seafood fra diavolo, the fish nicely cooked, the broth flavorful and spicy and the linguini -- like almost all the pasta -- nicely al dente. My rosemary chicken -- tossed with ziti, crispy pancetta, and asparagus in a parmesan cream sauce -- was delectable that night, and the leftovers were the next night, too.
Sweet Basil is worth a visit. There is no valet parking charge, and nary a meter to feed. Arrive early, and there's not much of a wait. Every entree is under $20. The wine -- your own -- is a bargain. If it were me, I wouldn't let you in with a Bud Light or dressed in cycling attire. But Becker will.