NEEDHAM — The chatty man with a big smile passing out small plates of risotto and fried calamari on the sidewalk in front of Sweet Basil is owner and chef David Becker. “Just because I don’t have a table ready doesn’t mean I’m not here to help you have a good time,” he says.
It’s a schmooze fest and Becker is the life of the party with the dinnertime crowd. There are no reservations, credit cards aren’t accepted, and it’s BYOB. Still, most nights people wait, sometimes an hour. The 50-seat eatery is often filled with regulars who have clamored for Becker’s Italian favorites since he opened 12 years ago.
Inside, the aroma is garlic, from tender handmade ravioli filled with ricotta and mascarpone in a lush tomato basil sauce; seafood fra diavolo over linguini; Bolognese with pappardelle. Many of these dishes are served on brown and light blue pottery. Look closely and you may notice that each dish is different, some even off center. Becker is also an amateur potter and makes most of the dinnerware. “Each one has their one personality,” says the chef. “I don’t want it to look like a 4-year-old made them, but they’re most interesting when they’re asymmetrical.”
Becker, 36, often veers from Italian cuisine for daily specials. In summer, a refreshing watermelon gazpacho is on the menu, made with red and yellow bell peppers, cucumber, tomatoes, and tomato juice. He simply mashes everything in a bowl until the vegetables release their juices, refrigerates it to mellow the mixture, then ladles it into his own pottery.
He started working in restaurants on the North Shore when he was 11. Straight from high school, he did a stint cooking in Napa Valley, worked at Davio’s on Newbury Street, and in Liguria, Italy, where he learned to make pasta. He opened Sweet Basil when he was 24.
After a dozen years, these days you’re more apt to find Becker in the front of the house than in the kitchen. “You don’t have to be the Tom Brady all the time,” says the chef. “Sometimes you’re the Belichick, sometimes you’re the Bob Kraft.”
Sweet Basil, 942 Great Plain Ave., Needham, 781-444-9600, www.sweetbasilneedham.com.