What can be better than cheese and crackers? How about some damn good slices of imported ham? Maybe a little chocolate for dessert? Champaign has one the best places to find all of those items, all served up with an Italian edge. I sat down with Bart Basi, owner, cheesemonger, and food curator of Cheese & Crackers to learn more about this little wonder.
I first discovered this locally owned, family operated deli/store shortly after they opened; they were the only place in town that carried Boar’s Head deli meats. Stumbling upon this little store was like opening a Russian nesting doll: despite its small size, there were many delightful pieces enclosed within the seemingly tiny store.
Bart Basi and his family (his wife and teenage son) own and operate this gem. Basi is an Italian-American from downstate who was lured to C-U in 1980 to go to school. His wife Mindy is an Urbana native. Before they opened the store, Bart worked as a chef and then in sales. The store seems to be an appropriate melding of those two experiences; Bart is gregarious and friendly and knows his food.
I’ve had conversations with Basi before. As a customer, I’ve stopped in and asked questions about various products and he not only answered my questions, but also chatted about the products and food experiences. He’s an incredibly friendly guy and from what I can tell, takes his job seriously without losing his sense of humor. I was delighted to find out that those interactions I had with him as a customer—before I interviewed him as the Food & Drink Editor of Smile Politely—were exactly the same as the conversation I had as F&D editor. That is, he wasn’t putting on an act for me as a customer or writer. (Or if he did, he’s damn consistent, and a good salesperson.)
The store is small, but the three refrigerated cases are full of product. As you makeyour way clockwise around the store, there is a cheese case, a meat case, a chocolate case, and a wall of dry goods. On your left (let’s say nine o’clock, in our clockwise movement), the cheeses, with their little description flags sticking straight up, are an arrangement of soldiers saluting you as you walk into the store. The meat case is piled high with deli meats ready for slicing, imported pork chops, dry aged steaks, and salumi galore. The chocolate case (at twelve o’clock, directly in front of you as you enter) is perhaps the most beautiful, simply because these gourmet, hand-crafted chocolates are stunning in their bite-size artisanal glory.
Continuing to three o’clock, the shelves of imported dry good are impressive. Although they take up an entire wall, more or less, there are a limited number of individual brands of each item. You won’t find 50 different brands of jarred tomato sauce here; there are only five (one of which is actually quite new). There are a handful of olive oils. Hiding in plain sight is also a line of Mother In Law’s Kimchi jars. Not Italian, clearly.
Basi takes cues, suggestions, and requests from his customers. They often introduce him to new items, and he does his best to bring them into the store. While I was there, he not only pointed out the kimchi, but also some Spanish tomato jam, and his new favorite brand of deli meat, Parmacotta (out of Parma, Italy). I also noticed some wasabi paste and sushi rice on the shelves. He indicated that the University of Illinois has brought in people from different geographic locations, which has informed his curation of cheeses, meats, chocolates, and dry goods.
In addition to all of those yummy things on the shelves, you can also get a gourmet soda. Basi carries a variety of different sodas from the Homer Soda Company, and these sodas come from all over the place.
To accompany your soda, I strongly suggest that you also have a sandwich. I tried a porchetta sandwich, and it was porky, salty without being overly so, peppery, and all in all, well seasoned. This roasted pork is a nice way to end sandwich meat doldrums. I also tried Mindy’s Italian sandwich. This sandwich was awesome. It was delicious. I cannot say enough good things about it. (As you can tell from this photo, I had to sneak a bite before I even snapped a photo. Also, that’s only half the sandwich.) I ordered it with hot pepper mix, which was also awesome. I encourage you all to go and get one of these, like, right now. The flavors are intense: the salty, rich salami is tempered with crisp lettuce; the heat from the hot mix was matched with a sweet balsamic dressing. This sandwich does not mess around, and I promise you will be satisfied.
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Bart:
Smile Politely: How long has Cheese & Crackers been in business? What’s its origin story?
Bart Basi: Four years. As my family returned from a trip, we discussed how we could not purchase in Champaign-Urbana really excellent small artisanal producer cheeses, fine hams like Iberico d’Bellota, or chocolates like Christopher Norman, or Christopher Elbow. My wife found a location, my son came up with a name, and I signed a lease. It all started with the very simple idea to bring the very best in cheese, cured meats, and chocolates to Champaign-Urbana.
SP: How has the store developed and changed over that time?
Basi: We have grown stronger and more defined; our expertise in all of our product lines has deepened and grown. We are not trend followers, but have our finger on the pulse of what is going on in fine foods. We can now refine our selections to bring interesting and innovative new cheeses to the community, while still stocking the cheeses we know C-U residents use as staples in their kitchens. Our success has allowed us to take some risks, such as stocking Iberico de Bellota ham, some very fine aged cheddars, challenging cheeses from domestic producers, and bringing in the finest chocolates from artisanal producers. Our customers have been very helpful.
Along with our cheese, cured meats, and chocolates, we now source the freshest fish, amazing marbled pork, and dry aged steaks—so we have expanded a lot. In addition to me and my family working at the store, we now have 6 full time employees.
SP: What would you cite as your biggest accomplishment with Cheese & Crackers?
Basi: Being able to bring a big city gourmet market shopping experience to Champaign-Urbana, while keeping our store accessible to people who are new to the gourmet food scene.
SP: Can you share with us one of the largest obstacles the store has had to overcome?
Basi: Getting amazing small batch artisanal products in the store. These producersdon’t have distribution, so you cannot just call up a salesperson and order it. It takes time to get first pressed olive oil from Italy—and that’s what we are doing.
SP: What’s your general perspective on food? That is, how do you approach food and drink culture? Why is it exciting to you?
Basi: Food and drink is an integral part of human existence. Human beings have been making cheese for millennia, and preserving meats. But more importantly, people want to make the stuff of life into interesting tasty things to eat. There is no culture that doesn’t embellish meat, milk, and starch into something much more interesting. To me, it’s exciting to work with the most delicious and interesting products in the world, which have taken thousands of years to perfect. Each producer takes pride in his or her product, and I want to appreciate the manufacture of that product from the animal that produced it, to the process that makes it so delicious.
SP: Talk to me about deli meat. What’s your favorite brand? Why?
Basi: Parmacotta from Parma, Italy. No GMO, no fillers, no sugars, no additives—pure clean meat, roasted like you would at home. Good solid meats, without the chemicals and preservatives found in everything at the grocery store today.
SP: What’s your favorite deli meat?
SP: Favorite sandwich?
Basi: Mindy’s Italian: imported Italian salami layered with sweet provolone, crunchy lettuce, tomatoes, and onion dressed with my own Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Modena, topped with my Italian herb blend.
SP: Let’s talk about cheese. How many different cheeses do you have available?
Basi: We usually have around 250 cheeses in the store, but the varieties vary seasonally. Of course we keep about 100 standbys that are staples in the cheese case.
SP: What’s your favorite cheese?
Basi: Asking a cheesemonger about his favorite cheese is like asking a father who his favorite child is! I love them all; my choices always depend what our suppliers can bring to us, what I am eating that day, what I am in the mood for, and even the weather!
SP: How do you determine which cheeses you’ll bring in?
Basi: The store is tiny, so I can only stock the very best. I don’t have room to carry fifty cheddars, so every cheese, every olive oil, every chocolate has to earn its spot on the shelf. Every time I meet a new producer of chocolate, or salami, or cheese, I taste and I ask myself, “is this more amazing that what I already have?” If the answer is yes, I buy it. Not every wheel of cheese is the same, so we taste everything that comes in the door.
SP: On your Facebook page, you recently described Mobay cheese on like this: “Crazy awesome confused cheese with a unique sense of identity (like Marilyn Manson meets Bruce Springsteen—weird but oddly cool in an Elvis Costello fashion).” What’s up with that? How’d you arrive at the musical comparison?
Basi: Like music, cheese it has notes and personality. When I taste a beautiful cheese I hear music in my head.
SP: Where do you get your bread?
Basi: Pekara Bakery supplies our bread; we strive to work with local businesses as much as we can. It’s important to support our local economy and the artisans that work here in C-U.
SP: Tell us about the Special Order Fish List. When did it start? How does it work?
Basi: We started the fish list about six months ago. My goal was to have the very freshest fish available in Champaign-Urbana. I wanted it straight off the plane from it’s point of origin. With the help of Fortune Fish in Chicago, Dixon’s in Springfield, and numerous small boats of fishermen around the country, I was able to achieve that goal. We don’t hold fish, or have a fish counter—the Fish List is preorder only, in one-pound increments. Customers receive an email with the fish that is in season and arriving the next day in Chicago, complete with descriptions and prices. After placing an order by responding to the email, their fish is ready after 2 p.m. the next day. Because Fortune is a major supplier to restaurants and sushi bars, we have access to the very highest quality fish and shellfish; our customers are getting the same product the finest chefs are using in their kitchens. Once you taste my fish products, you will understand the difference between fish that was swimming 24 hours before it was delivered, and a product that has been held in a fish case for three or four days—the contrast is dramatic.
SP: How do you choose which vendors you’ll include on the Fish List?
Basi: Our vendors are experts in seafood, and import fish from all over the world as well as source domestically. We use the vendor that has the best seafood product that day, because it varies depending on their suppliers. All of our vendors strive to carry environmentally sustainable fish products, which I appreciate because I can pass that on to my customers. Our vendors know just about all there is to know about fish and shellfish, which means my customers get the very freshest and best quality fish out there.
SP: Tell us a little about the non-deli product you have available. I’ve noticed plentyof imported Italian goods on the shelves.
Basi: As with the cheese and chocolates, every pasta, every coffee, every cracker on the shelf has to earn it’s place and be the very best. I am always searching and tasting for the best; when I find it, I buy it. If it’s in my store, it’s excellent.
SP: If you had to survive on a deserted island with only three items from your store, what would they be?
Basi: A perfect wedge of Twin Maple Farms Hudson red cheese, a slice of Iberica de Bellota ham, and one piece of my Fortunado #4 chocolate, which comes from an ancient cocoa tree.
SP: What’s one lesser-known tidbit about Cheese & Crackers you’d like SP readers to know?
Basi: My son came up with the name when he was in middle school. Family is very important to us!
SP: If you had to choose: cheese or crackers?
Basi: Cheese, because a humble drop of milk can become an epicurean life changing experience.
Cheese & Crackers is located in the Old Farms shopping area at 1715 W Kirby in Champaign. They’re open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.