After losing all his hard-earned cash at the high-limit poker table two weeks ago, Johnny P was forced to escort me to a more modest venue for dinner recently. Lost once again in Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park area, we happened upon a rehabbed Pizza Hut more creatively re-christened “Fresh Basil.”
Server/hostess/counterperson Savannah (you’d be correct if you guessed she was born in Johnny Mercer’s hometown in Georgia) explained to us that indeed, not only was the basil delivered with roots still intact, but all the ingredients were fresh. Well, not quite all. We learned after enjoying our entrees, our dessert was not prepared entirely in-house.
Savannah showed us to a table and handed us each a menu. “This is an ambitious menu for a small place,” observed John. Covering everything from appetizers, salads, grinders, cold subs, charcoal grilled burgers, wraps, pizzas, calzones and pizza rolls, dinners and desserts — Fresh Basil appears to have food for almost everyone. We decided to order a little bit of a lot of things in order to taste their spectrum of offerings.
At the top of our list were the Buffalo wings (10 for $9.49). We ordered them medium and our server delivered a small container of hot sauce in case we needed more pizzazz. We did not. The wings were perfect the way they were prepared in the kitchen. In fact, they may have been the best item we sampled on the menu — slightly crispy on the outside but moist on the inside, supporting Savannah’s claim that owner Duran (his first name) uses fresh ingredients.
The dozen fried mushrooms ($6.49) we ordered did not quite fare as well as the wings. They were deep-fried in a thick crispy shell housing a small hot and squishy mushroom. Adequate but not eyepopping.
We wanted to sample a dish with fresh basil and so we ordered a personal size, 10-inch, four-cut margherita pizza ($6.49) prepared with fresh mozzarella, Romano cheese, fresh basil and house-made margherita sauce. The pizza itself seemed a bit dry, although the fresh basil perked it up.
We succumbed to ordering dinners, though the abundance of appetizers would have been sufficient. John chose the house-made lasagna ($10.99), while I opted for the in-house breaded and seasoned eggplant parmigiana ($12.99) over my choice of pasta (angel hair). Tomato sauce on both was made in-house, but my taste buds would have delighted in a little more garlic and seasonings. We evaluated the ground meat in the lasagna as on the bland side but the sauce was lively enough for John. Both dinners were accompanied by house salads, which did not arrive until we reminded our server.
Even after having sat at the table for several minutes my eggplant parm erupted with steam like a miniature volcano when I dug into it. Besides being hot, the eggplant was crispy and well-seasoned. The sauce was flavorful and the molten mozzarella was abundant, sliding down the edges of the fried eggplant like so much lava. Notoriously difficult to prepare al dente, my capellini arrived slightly overcooked. In retrospect, in order to satisfy my preference for al dente pasta, I should have requested a sturdier shape to accompany the eggplant.
We ordered a cannoli ($2.99) to bring home. Savanah had explained that although the shells were purchased, the cream used to fill the tubes was made in-house. The problem was that only the open ends of the tube had been sealed up with the ricotta cream mixture, leaving a third of the structure hollow and empty. The omission might have been tolerable if the cannoli shell had not been slightly soggy. Whether from humidity, refrigeration or age, the result was not the cannoli I’ve drooled over in Schenectady’s Little Italy in the vicinity of North Jay Street.
Fourteen tables and several booths accommodated in-house diners and customers waiting for takeout. Maroon linens with dark green paper napkins softened the tabletops, which were otherwise devoid of adornment except for a utilitarian paper-napkin dispenser that was poised to remedy messy wing-sauce-tipped fingers.
Quoth John: “Fresh Basil’s food exceeds their ambience.” To which I add, “and efficient, caring service showed Savannah’s dedication to her profession.”
WHERE: 1020 Riverfront Center, Amsterdam (former Pizza Hut building on E. Main and Washington Street), (518) 212-2700, http://www.freshbasilamsterdam.com
WHEN: Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thur.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $53.42 for two people with soft drinks but without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Accessible (one step over curb from large parking area), all major credit cards accepted, takeout, catering, kids night with balloons 5-7 p.m. every Wednesday, Saturday nights are parm nights with live ’50s/’60s rock ‘n’ roll music.