Italian food in America has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance in the last few decades, and completely without da Vinci's help -- everywhere you look, you can find some good old-fashioned red gravy adorning, well, just about anything chefs can get their hands on. And chefs can get their hands on a lot of stuff, turns out.
But there are certain places that make the rest quake in their Italy-shaped boots, and we're here to recognize them. Without further ado, here are the best Italian restaurants in America -- not just pizzerias, but legit trattorias, enotecas, and the like. Capisce?
Ever since it opened in 1998, Babbo has been consistently mobbed by crowds of New Yorkers lured in by its incredible American takes on Italian food... and by the fact that it’s one of the most heavily lauded restaurants in New York City history. And New York has a lot of restaurants. Helmed by legendary Italian restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, Babbo has committed itself to applying Italian recipes and ingredients to American cooking, and to plying its patrons with tons of liters of wine. These dudes know how to party (the place is a bit of a zoo), and while it also may be a bit tough to score a reservation, it’s well worth the wait.
Spiaggia was Obama’s favorite restaurant back when he was a Chicago resident, and its food remains of a presidential caliber. Nestled fittingly on the city’s Magnificent Mile, Spiaggia recently underwent a transformative renovation of its space overlooking Lake Michigan, and while the rules for the dining room might have changed (no longer do they enforce their “jackets required” rule in their lounge), the food is just as killer as ever. The menu focuses on innovating classic Italian recipes (think foie gras ravioli), and dishes come out of the only four-star Italian kitchen in the city of Chicago courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Mantuano, aka Obama’s “favorite chef”. The president’s favorite dish? Wood-fired scallops -- a people pleaser on both sides of the aisle.
When a restaurant’s name literally means “rebel” in Italian, you know you’re not getting strictly traditional fare -- and Ribelle in Brookline delivers on that promise. Chef Tim Maslow’s stint at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York taught him how to push the envelope, and now he’s passing what he learned onto you in the form of an ever-changing menu that combines elements of Italian cuisine with an indomitable American spirit that’s not in any way related to cigarettes: gnocchi with smoked trout and olive oil ice cream are typical moves there. Oh, and their cocktail program is nicely curated too.
This dream-team collab of Mario Batali and LA's most beloved daughter, Nancy Silverton (who founded La Brea Bakery), is the centerpiece of a mini-empire that also includes a more casual spot (Pizzeria Mozza) and a meat-lover's paradise (Chi Spacca). Though all three are wonderful, the Osteria is the crown jewel, with an extraordinary wine selection, amazing pastas, and a mid-room mozzarella bar that'll make you believe in cheese-us.
If you go to Frasca, you'll inevitably meet Bobby Stuckey. He roams around the white tablecloth-filled dining room, offering anything from a smile to a wine pairing suggestion pulled from his 20+ years as a sommelier. He and Frasca have won so many James Beard Awards for wine they should rename the category after them. The restaurant stands out as a fine-dining oasis in Boulder, CO, a town where form-fitting bike shorts are a respected sartorial choice. The menu changes seasonally, but always highlights the "flavors and international influences" of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy.
Since 1998, when Delfina opened in the Mission and essentially ushered in a new era for that entire neighborhood, Craig and Anne Stoll have continually put out some of the best Italian food in SF (sorry red-sauce spots of North Beach). And despite the fact that they now have three pizzerias and an also amazing Roman-esque Italian spot in Locanda, the original remains the place you want to be for crazy good pastas (literally everything is good, but get the mint tagliatelle with mushrooms and nettles if it’s there), secondi (roasted Mary’s chicken with olive oil mashed potatoes), and ridiculous desserts.
Sure, it’s not in the North End, but don’t let that discount this Italian small-plate eatery in Boston. What it lacks in, uh, neighborhood, it makes up for with the sheer amazingness and scope of its menu. Their offerings are constantly changing based on what’s available and in-season, but you can always expect whatever they’ve got to be on the more daring side of Italian fare: chefs/owners Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer are known for being a bit out there, and it’s reflected in the Italian tapas (“stuzi”) they offer, such as pig’s tails and bones with a mostarda glaze. For those feeling a bit less adventurous, there’s always their addictive arancini.
Rarely does a restaurant in Atlantic City skew towards the rustic, but that’s exactly the case with Chef Vola’s, which is nestled inside an otherwise normal-seeming house. To get in is no easy feat, as reservations are few and far between, they’re cash-only, BYOB, and you’ve got to find the place first. But once you do, you’re immersed in an old-school dining experience: the waiter will recite their entire menu to you, and if that isn’t impressive enough, just know that it’s a huge menu packed with huge dishes. Pretty much anything you order is going to tip the scales, so come hungry -- and get the veal Parmesan.
This industrial-feeling, uber-hip modern Italian restaurant in Downtown LA has essentially changed its neighborhood from "super-sketchy place where no one ever goes" to "somewhat sketchy place that everyone is itching to go to" thanks to an extraordinary vibe, a great patio, and -- most importantly -- amazing food, including a housemade charcuterie platter that's got chef Ori Menashe's delicate touch all over it.
In just a few short years (Editor's note: in truth, they were normal-length) Balena has become a fixture on the Chicago dining scene, and not just because of its neon light installations that manage to blend seamlessly with the elegance of the soaring, exposed beam ceilings and leather-topped bar. Speaking of that bar, it's where they'll be making you a spot-on cocktail from their amaro-heavy menu (conveniently ranked from 1 to 10 on bitterness level). Now that you've had your aperitivo, it's time to eat. May we recommend ALL the pasta? Everything's made in-house, even the dried stuff, meaning everything from a simple spaghetti cacio e pepe to the ocean-rich squid inked tagliolini nero with crab, sea urchin, and chili is stunning. As are the pizzas. But try to leave yourself room for an affogato with fluffy cinnamon-sugar donuts.
The duality of Staple & Fancy is what makes its approach to Italian food all the more appealing: you can order off their a la carte menu of Italian staples, or try the fancy approach and go with Seattle star chef Ethan Stowell’s tasting menu, which is comprised of multiple courses and curated by the kitchen staff. Sure, chef Stowell’s got a lot of restaurants in the Seattle area, but S&F is heralded as his best, and its a la carte options are a who’s who of fine local ingredients (tagliarini with king crab, cherry tomatoes, and olives). No matter which culinary adventure you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
Chef John Besh is perhaps more well-known for his domination of New Orleans’ restaurant scene with his vast array of Creole-inspired digs. But, perhaps to prove that he’s got some serious international cooking chops as well, he opened Domenica in the city’s Roosevelt Hotel -- showing already that he’s got an affinity for hospitality. In branching out to Italian food, Besh still hits it out of the park with his unique spins on pizza (fig, speck, honey & burrata), pasta (squid ink tagliolini topped with blue crab), and a wide variety of house-cured meats made in classic Boot tradition and available upon request (or wild gesticulation).
James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Tusk is well-known in SF (and national) circles for his fine-dining spot Quince, but that is for special occasions, and locating your sport coat in the attic. Cotogna, on the other hand, (it means quince in Italian!) is the everyday spot, in that you will want to go there every single day to try one of their incredible wood-oven pizzas (which you can see cooking when you walk in) alongside quite possibly the best pasta in the city, a specialty Tusk is known for dominating. Oh, and their cocktail program is pretty effin’ silly-good as well.
al di la’s Northern Italian fare has been drawing people from all over New York (and even New Jersey) ever since it was opened by husband-and-wife team Emiliano Coppa and chef Anna Klinger -- there is usually a line forming about an hour before it opens for dinner every night. The rustic dishes sent out from the kitchen are expertly prepared, from the rabbit with polenta to the pork loin scaloppine, and more than stand up to their extensive wine list with their heartiness. If the main restaurant’s packed, just slip on back to their back-room wine bar. It’s got the same menu as up front, just with more temptation.
Located in a space that boasts wisteria-adorned trellises and wood-burning ovens, Al Forno offers diners a nearly-authentic Italian experience... in the middle of Rhode Island. Owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon have even been awarded with the “Insegna del Ristorante Italiano”, a rare certification from the Italian government that their food is Boot-standard approved. The insalate, the pastas, the pizzas, and the dishes cooked in their oven (especially their baked pasta) are excellent, but make sure you order the oft off-menu “Dirty Steak” special: a flank steak cooked in a peppery sauce that every regular swears by.
Like a fourth-generation Don, AG's place has serious pedigree: it’s the pet project of the dude who founded Stumptown Coffee and Portland’s lauded Woodsman Tavern. Unsurprisingly, it started getting accolades the minute the first customer sat down two years ago. The joint offers full-comfort with an upscale take on rustic Roman fare, all sourced from local producers to make it as fresh and hyper-local as possible while schooling you in lesser-known culinary traditions. Radiatore and cacatelli are made in-house, while a dish of pork steak with ground cherries and other unlikely accouterments is served on a heaping platter “per la famiglia di condividere”. That means “for the family to share”. Don’t worry. The menu has a glossary to help you figure that out.
Da Marco is all about authenticity -- inspired by Venice and the greater Friulian region, its menu is studded with old-world favorites that chef Marco Wiles makes his own, such as sweet corn ravioli with lobster and artichokes alla “giudia” (as in, fried to a light crispiness). The space is cozy and warm, and has even got a fireplace to make the vibes feel all the more homey. The wine list is dizzying in a variety of ways, and contains vintages from all the way back to the ‘70s, if you want to know what sort of wine people were drinking when disco was popular.
South Congress Avenue's a bustling strip of boutique hotels and chic vintage shops, but long before the arrival of the American Apparel store, the street has boasted the best Italian food in the city. Vespaio gives you everything you'd want from a traditional Italian joint: a bustling behind-the-scenes energy, wafting smells of red sauce, and an old-school waitstaff that time forgot. The food is similarly on point -- enjoy a pitch-perfect carbonara and specialties like vitello saltimbocca (veal scaloppine, sage, Parma prosciutto). For a less formal atmosphere, neighboring Enoteca -- from the same owners -- offers that old-school Italian vibe for lunch with bonuses like to-go charcuterie and pastries. Don't miss the prosciutto pizza with fontina, arugula, and a truffled sunny side-up egg.
With a menu focused on Northern Italian cuisine given a modern American twist, Trattoria Marcella is a recent addition (1995) to St. Louis’s storied Italian restaurant scene. But don’t let its relative youth fool you -- inside lurks a caliber of dishes rarely found outside the normal Italian hotspots of New York and Boston. The housemade pastas and risottos are really where this “soul food” restaurant excels, and that’s obvious when you take a bite of their lobster risotto, which manages at once to be both rich and light. Another sure star is their osso bucco served with butternut polenta.
Few restaurants can claim to be a place where people consistently go to celebrate momentous life events as often as Vetri in Philadelphia. Chef Marc Vetri has created an atmosphere of absolute Italian luxury that’s almost unmatched -- from the moment you enter, you’re enveloped in the finest smells and offered the finest wines. Even when ordering, they take care of most of the work for you by only offering a pricey prix-fixe tasting menu that’s custom-tailored to your personal tastes and desires. Whether it’s for your birthday, your anniversary, or your adoption by an eccentric billionaire, there might not be a better place to commemorate the occasion than here.
The grittily hip North Williamsburg cityscape, full of concrete lots & lofts and adjacent to the highway, isn’t where you’d normally expect to find an old-school Italian dining experience. But nestled amongst the modern apartment buildings is a relic from 1900: Bamonte’s. Step inside the door of the unassuming restaurant and it’s like stepping back in time -- the waiters are tuxedoed, the dining room is covered in red wallpaper and the tables in white cloth, and everyone is there with family. In fact, clams casino was invented AFTER Bamonte’s was founded, and it was probably one of the most recent menu additions. Everything on the menu here is huge and superbly cooked, and the chefs are more than willing to make additions and substitutions. Turns out old dogs can learn new tricks.
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Adam Lapetina is the partnerships editor at Thrillist, and might as well be named Gene Parmesan. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.
1. Babbo 110 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10011 (West Village)
Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant is a charming former carriage house in the West Village serving high-end Italian fare with an elevated, chef-inspired twist on classic dishes. The pasta here is certainly worth the hype, like the pillowy potato gnocchi, cuddled in shreds of tender oxtail that’s been sautéed in a robust red wine and tomato-based ragu.
Walls of wine bottles line the entrance to this elegant Italian eatery (which nabbed a 2014 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Restaurant), ushering diners into a contemporary space with black marble and white tablecloths. Chef Tony Mantuano heads the kitchen, making the preparation of elevated, artfully plated dishes look like a walk on the beach (by the way, "spiaggia" means beach in Italian). Jackets are no longer required in the dining room, but let it be known, this isn't the type of place where you want to show up looking like a schlub.
3. Ribelle 1665 Beacon St, Brookline, MA 02445 (Washington Sq)
This elegant spot from Strip T's and Momofuku Ssam Bar alum Tim Maslow is slinging gorgeously plated, Italian-inspired dishes -- lamb tartare with sunchokes and egg, for example -- and refreshing 'tails.
Boulder's (some say the nation's!) best upscale Italian spot reopens its doors after six weeks of closure with an uprgraded kitchen, a private dining room that seats 25, and brand new opening night probables including braised lamb shoulder w/ cannellini b
6. Delfina 3621 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)
Open since 1998, Delfina is credited for putting the Mission on the map as San Francisco's epicenter for innovative, critically-acclaimed dining. The Italian menu is wonderfully simple and undeniably satisfying. Case in point is the signature dish: spaghetti with plum tomatoes, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and pepperoncini. The unassuming small space is packed to the brim every night with neighborhood regulars and culinary-minded tourists.
This 85-year-old, family-owned Italian restaurant is super exclusive (complete with a secret side door), so you won't get in without a reservation made at least a month in advance. When you go, be sure to BYOB and prepare for an intimate dinner without any set menus.
9. Bestia 2121 E 7th Pl, Los Angeles, CA 90021 (Downtown)
Since opening in 2012, Bestia's become the definitive LA restaurant, offering a menu that appeals to both eat-anything foodies and eat-carefully dieters in an industrial but homey space. The Arts District restaurant serves an Italian menu with next-level pizza, pasta, and small plates, and no matter what you get, be sure to start with the beloved charcuterie board -- all the meats are cured in-house.
10. Balena 1633 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)
The menu at this acclaimed collaborative effort between Boka Restaurant Group and B. Hospitality Co. showcases executive chef/partner Chris Pandel's modern-yet-homey interpretation of Italian cuisine, and spans from hearth-fired pizzas and burrata di panna to far-from-ordinary house-made pastas, including tagliolini nero tossed with crab, sea urchin, and mint, and walnut pesto-coated Sardinian gnocchi. The concept also offers an exceptional brunch program packed with sweet and savory dishes.
This place's name says it all. Chef Ethan Stowell offers à la carte "Staple" choices, as well as a multi-course "Fancy" chef's tasting menu. The former includes a variety of Italian-inspired eats, like gnocchi with housemade fennel sausage and braised lamb shank, while the latter includes $55 worth of the chef's choice. Either way, you can't go wrong.
12. Domenica 123 Baronne St, New Orleans, LA 70112 (Central Business District)
Named after the Italian word for 'Sunday,' this spot in the CBD's Roosevelt Hotel is meant to evoke feelings of dinner at your nonna's casa. The menu takes simple, rustic fare to the next level. The thick crusted pies here are the show-stoppers, especially the Tutto Carne with bacon, salami, and sausage, all topped with a farm egg.
13. Cotogna 490 Pacific Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133 (Jackson Square)
20-feet from white-table-clothed-Quince in the Financial District, Michael Tusk gets casual at Cotogna with fresh, seasonal antipasti, traditional Italian pasta, pizzas, and proteins straight from the brick oven, and simple sweets and sides. Take a seat in front of the wood-fired oven to watch the cooks prepare your meal, sit across from your date at one of the intimate tables, or share a communal table with the neighborhood folks. Get the pasta's (we’re looking at you, raviolo filled with a luscious runny egg) and any grilled lamb, pork, or fish dish. The accessible wine list (all $50 by-the-bottle and $12 by-the-glass) and reasonably priced menu makes this a perfect low-key yet impressive date spot.
Chef Anna Klinger's Al Di La Trattoria is a rustic ode to all things farm-to-table. Open since 1998, Al Di La has been a favorite of local Park Slopians thanks to its cozy atmosphere and family-friendly menu. Specializing in the cuisine of Venice and Northern Italy, this warm neighborhood spot doles out dishes using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible, and also hosts a robust, eco-minded wine list (you can sample the goods while you dine in, or at the Al Di La Vino wine bar next door).
From the outside, this Providence Italian looks like it came straight out of Tuscany. The brick-walled entrance is lined with ivy and wisteria, and once you walk inside, you get the feeling that you're in store for some of Rhode Island's finest pasta and pizza. Al Forno's signature grilled pizzas are in a class of their own with their charred and chewy crust and atypical shape. But the thing that makes the menu so great is that pizza is only an appetizer. Other signature plates include spicy clams, baked five-cheese pasta, and wood-grilled meats.
Ava Gene's is an upscale Italian spot with a rustic take on a Roman-inspired menu, and all the food is sourced from local producers to make it as fresh as possible. This stylish eatery also has a bunch of family-style dining options, a regional Italian wine list, great cocktails, and a large selection of Amari and Grappa to complement your meal.
Da Marco is all about authenticity -- inspired by Venice and the greater Friulian region, its menu is studded with old-world favorites that chef Marco Wiles makes his own, such as sweet corn ravioli with lobster.
Enoteca Vespaio has been a quality spot for Sunday brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert since it opened in 2005. The folks there cultivate fine Italian cuisine in a pleasant setting and also have a terrific wine selection.
Vespaio gives you everything you'd want from a traditional Italian joint: a bustling behind-the-scenes energy, wafting smells of red sauce, and an old-school waitstaff that time forgot. The food is similarly on point -- enjoy a pitch-perfect carbonara and specialties like vitello saltimbocca.
From the moment you enter, you’re enveloped in the finest smells and offered the finest wines. Even when ordering, it takes care of most of the work for you by only offering a pricey prix-fixe tasting menu that’s custom-tailored to your personal tastes and desires.
Forgo the hipster stigma of Williamsburg eateries by heading to Bamonte's, a classic red sauce joint that serves as a time capsule in both product and presentation. The waiters are tuxedoed, the dining room tables are draped in white cloth, and the menu features every item you'd expect an Italian grandmother to make. The price point is reasonable, so stock your table with the classics in a space that's been around longer than most in this city.