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Eat & Drink

Sep 5, 2008 12:18 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Casa Basso serves up fine Italian food for 80 years

Sep 5, 2008 12:18 PM

Along Montauk Highway between Remsenburg and Westhampton Beach, a small castle juts out from the woods. The castle—built in 1928 and accessed by driving between two outsize swordsmen—does not house Rapunzel, a princess, or any other storybook character. Rather, it’s home to a gallery called The Rook and, in a smaller, one-story building behind the castle, the Italian restaurant called Casa Basso.

Although the restaurant has been in business for the last 80 years, Casa Basso has been owned since 1986 by Julie and Betjo Bracovic—a couple from Montenegro, a tiny country on the Adriatic in southeastern Europe, by way of Brooklyn.

Ms. Bracovic, who runs the front-of-house operations, said that the castle “draws people in” to Casa Basso. And the curious wanderers generally turn out to have an appetite.

“People just stop to look at the statues, and then they wander in to have dinner,” Ms. Bracovic said.

Once the curious diners enter the establishment, the fantastical exterior gives way to an Italian restaurant with a dark interior, papered walls, a large bar to the right of the entrance and Frank Sinatra crooning through the speakers.

The restaurant remains largely unchanged—aside from some renovations to the interior—from when it first opened in the late 1920s.

Ms. Bracovic said that she and her husband bought the restaurant from the previous owner, Rene Mondini. A sign on the left-hand side of the entrance to the restaurant pays tribute, giving the full former name: “Rene’s Casa Basso.”

“Mr. Mondini owned the restaurant since the 1950s,” Ms. Bracovic said. “He bought it from the Bassos [the founding owners] in 1958.”

The Bracovics might seem like relative newcomers in the restaurant’s long history, but Mr. Bracovic has now been a mainstay at the establishment for 37 years.

Starting in 1971, he worked in the kitchen, helping Mr. Mondini cook during the summer. Mr. Bracovic was 16 at the time. From that point on, Mr. Bracovic—who now runs the kitchen—received all his culinary training from the former proprietor. Mr. Bracovic never went to culinary school.

“I learned almost everything from him,” Mr. Bracovic said. “He travelled the world and worked in Germany, France, and Italy. He was an expert with food.”

The Bracovics decided to purchase the restaurant from Mr. Mondini in 1986 because, Ms. Bracovic said, Mr. Mondini, who died in 1999, “was getting too old.”

“He was a very likeable person,” Ms. Bracovic said of Mr. Mondini. “He was like a father to us.”

“We still do Northern Italian food. We do seafood, steaks and veal chops,” Ms. Bracovic said, explaining that this type of fare was what the original owners, the Bassos, offered as well.

The restaurant’s drink selection complements the menu choices, Ms. Bracovic noted. The extensive wine list outweighs any of the cocktails offered at the restaurant in terms of popularity, she said.

“We sell a lot of Italian wines, but Long Island wines are big here, too,” Ms. Bracovic said. “Anything can be done at our full bar, as well.”

A few of the customers frequenting Casa Basso have been coming to the restaurant since the 1920s, Ms. Bracovic said. “People still come who knew the original owners,” she said, noting that those customers are well into their 80s and 90s.

The restaurant caters to both locals and visitors, Ms. Bracovic said, adding that, just as at many other Hamptons dining establishments, “the regulars stay away with the summer crowd here.”

Although the restaurant itself is more than 80 years old, there have been many improvements made to the interior. “It was dingy and old, and it needed re-working,” Ms. Bracovic said, explaining that she and her husband have re-done the entire inside of the restaurant, including the bathrooms.

The main dining room, Ms. Bracovic said, originally had 10-foot ceilings. Now it features 15- to 16-foot ceilings.

“The restaurant was much darker, the ceiling was wood,” Ms. Bracovic said. “People who haven’t been here in five, six, seven years, they think it’s new owners now, but it isn’t.”

The main dining room also features antique-looking cream-colored Murano glass chandeliers, and art work from the 1920s. The gallery within the castle, The Rook, is not owned by the Bracovics, who rent the space out.

As for the menu, the veal osso bucco, $31.50, is one of the most popular dishes, Ms. Bracovic said.

Mr. Bracovic said that to prepare the meal, he must slow-roast the veal shank for three to four hours. Carrots, celery, onions and a “touch of tomato” go into the dish, and it is finished with lemon and orange zest as well as parsley.

“I make many in a night,” Mr. Bracovic said of the perennial favorite for patrons.

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