20 Years & Still Cookin’: Basilicos Partners Look Back in Wonder
By Mary Byrne Lamb
An exterior shot of Basilicos Ristorante.
Owners Vinson Powell and Scott Oliver during the opening of Basilicos in 1999.
That’s the answer you’ll hear from business partners Scott Oliver and Vinson Powell if you ask them how they feel about celebrating the 20th anniversary of Basilicos Ristorante.
Despite a packed house, hordes of exceptional online reviews, and a loyal following, it’s still a little hard for them to believe that the blind leap of faith they took as young guys in their 20s has become a booming business and a beloved Sea Isle City mainstay.
“It snuck up on us,” says Oliver, who is the chef and runs the kitchen. “We’ve been so busy. If you asked me now to quit my job and open a restaurant, I’d be terrified. I would never take that leap. But, at 27, I took that leap.”
Powell, who is the “pizza man” and runs the front of the house, is similarly in awe of where they started and what they’ve become. “Scott and I rarely talk about it,” he says, “but when we do, we step back and go, ‘Man, did we think we could have made it?’ Well, we did.”
Built on a shared passion for food, customer service, and the hospitality industry, Basilicos Ristorante started as a pipe dream for two men who were both introduced to restaurant work in the least glamorous way.
“I started washing dishes when I was 15,” says Oliver. “I had never been in a kitchen like that before. There’s so much action. I saw a chef flame a pan and I was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ And I was tasting all these flavors. So that really got me going. Then I bounced around a couple of kitchens and I just stayed in the restaurant business, working my way up.”
For Powell, the trajectory was remarkably similar. “From the dish station where I worked as a kid, you could look out and see the pizza guys doing their thing,” he recalls. “Even as a kid, I thought it was awesome. Then the guys that worked above me took me under their wing. At the end of the night, they would teach me how to stretch pie. Next thing you know, within three years I was making pizzas.”
After separately working in different area restaurants for about 10 years, Oliver and Powell’s paths finally crossed.
“I guess I was 25 when I met Vinson and he was 21,” Oliver says. “I was the sous chef/chef and he was the pizza man and we worked together for two years. One day we were in the kitchen and we came to the realization that we were running this restaurant, because the owner was never there. And we were like, ‘Could we do this for ourselves?’ It started out kind of like a joke, but we started looking around.”
Things quickly became real.
The Aragosta a Risotto.
“We found this place on 43rd Street that was an Italian restaurant that had been empty for three years,” Oliver continues. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Do you want to try it?’ I was 27 and Vinson was 23 and we just jumped in. We gutted the building and opened way back in May 1999. I was a nervous wreck. But we made it. We got our footing, and got a following, and every year has been better than the year before.”
The partnership between Oliver and Powell is certainly at the heart of their longevity and success.
“The two-piece puzzle worked,” says Powell. “I said I would run the front and do the pizzas. I’m a people person. And Scott’s phenomenal in the kitchen. We absolutely love what we do. It’s been 30 years since I started washing dishes and Scott the same. I think the partnership is awesome. It gives you that extra incentive.”
And though the duo didn’t start out as family technically, they are family now.
“The story is kind of crazy,” says Powell. “Now Scott’s married to my younger sister, Lauren, and they have two sons. Lauren is the main hostess at the front door. My wife, Megan, helps too. We’re a family business top to bottom. Everyone who works here feels like family. And Scott is my brother, whether he was married to my sister or not.”
As important as the people running the business, the food at Basilicos is another thing that has kept them going strong for two decades. An Internet search yields hundreds of positive reviews with effusive descriptions such as, “the veal dishes and pasta were spectacular,” and “Everything was delicious, from the bread with dipping oil, to the calamari to the Homemade Gnocchi, and to end it all Creme Brule!”
Those passionate reviews are no accident. As the chef, Oliver prides himself on the quality of Basilicos food.
“If I can make it homemade, it’s homemade,” he says. “We make our own sausage. We make our own bread. We make our own pastas. I don’t buy ground beef, I grind it myself for meatballs. I’m not buying frozen fish, the fish is coming in fresh. We do a lot of that kind of stuff because I think that is what sets us apart.”
That kind of quality has earned Basilicos a loyal following.
The interior of the restaurant.
“We have customers we’ve known now for literally 20 years and they say, ‘We kept coming in even though you didn’t have air conditioning that first year.’ But they remind us with a smile,” Powell says with a laugh. “We see thousands of people, and you know first names, you know their kids’ names. Now those kids come in with their families. It’s tight-knit.”
Increased demand has taken Basilicos from that first season when it was only open for a couple of months to now being open year-round.
“It’s really neat,” Powell says. “We have to turn people away on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February. But we love it. It keeps us going. The more you do it, the more you enjoy it.”
And Oliver and Powell also appreciate the community support they’ve had since Day 1.
“The community accepted us, which is great because you don’t know if that will happen,” Oliver explains. “Mayor Lenny [Desiderio] has been great to us. A lot of the established people were nothing but kind to us, when we were kids. I don’t know if they thought we were going to make it!”
But they certainly made it. After 20 years, Basilicos Ristorante is bigger than the two-piece puzzle that started it.
“You get goose bumps,” Powell says. “It’s not really about me and Scott. It’s about everybody who comes in. It’s about the people working in the back and up front. We are an employer. People depend on us and we feel like we have to be on-point all the time. It humbles you as a person. Twenty years? We’ll do another 20. That little snowball we started got really big and it just continues. It’s a good one.”
Basilicos Ristorante at a Glance
27 43rd Street, Sea Isle City
609-263-1010 • basilicosristorante.com
• Reservations recommended
(Call / Online - Open Table)
• Dine In
• Take Out
• Catering Services
• Kids Menu
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