Why eat ordinary?
When you can dine extraordinary.
By all indications, it seems Francesco Basile might have been destined to become a fisherman instead of a chef. He grew up in small fishing village on the coast of Sicily near Palermo.
“We had every kind of fish you can imagine,” Basile says, “tuna, mackerel, clams, sea urchins and sword fish.”
His aunt and grandmother kept young Francesco busy by having him help peel potatoes or scrape the scales off fish. He hated it, especially at Christmas time when he had to help clean the silver sardines and anchovies that went into the elaborate Feast of Seven Fishes that marked Christmas Eve. But then something changed.
“I started to love it,” he says. “I wanted to go to cooking school.”
Francesco attended culinary school at the Istituto Statale Alberghiero in Palermo, where he learned the right way to hold a knife, how to make a silky and intensely flavored brown sauce and how to be economical and use every scrap in the kitchen down to onion skins and wilted lettuce leaves.
Upon graduation, Francesco worked at a beach resort on Isola d’Elba, creating light seafood dishes and richer ones like the Cacciucco alla Livornese, a seafood soup with a tomato broth that’s similar to bouillabaisse. He cooked at a ski resort in the mountains, rolling noodles like pappardelle by hand and making warming dishes like roasted pork and lamb.
After a few years of cooking, Francesco - like many young Italians - figured it was time to find his fortune in America. In 1991, he moved to Huntington Beach and started cooking at a bustling restaurant called Mangia Mangia. It was hard at first, since he didn’t speak English and Americans shopped at grocery stores instead of little artisanal shops. But he soon appreciated being exposed to a more Italian American style of cuisine and learning how to be consistent in a high volume restaurant. He returned to Italy for a short while and then came back to stay in California in 1994. Francesco cooked at Venus at the Spa in South Coast Plaza, where he learned how to use herbs, fruit and spices to create spa cuisine that was light and still flavorful. In 1996, he landed a chef position at Panevino in the Gaslamp Quarter, which brought him to San Diego.
“It was such a nice experience to be in beautiful San Diego,” Basile says. During his three-year tenure at the award-winning restaurant, Francesco created signature dishes like a rack of veal roulade stuffed with a spinach frittata in porcini mushroom sauce.
One day a salesman who happened to share the last name of Basile with Francesco came into the restaurant. They weren’t relatives, but Francesco jokingly asked to meet his cousins. The salesman introduced Francesco to his daughter Marta and the pair fell in love. They married and have a daughter named Chiara.
In 2001, Francesco and Marta became enchanted with La Mesa and opened Antica Trattoria. “I finally realized my dream to open my own restaurant,” Basile says with a smile. “The neighborhood is beautiful and the clientele supported me from the first day.”
Written by Maria Hunt
Food & Drink Editor