Italy had its Renaissance a few centuries ago, but in the American dining landscape, Italian food is in a constant state of reinvention and refinement. Trattorias, pastarias, osterias, pizzerias, and nonna-driven holes in the wall have woven themselves into the American culinary fabric, offering up everything from fine-dining experiences to the kinds of gut-busting, coma-inducing feasts that leave everybody at the table comatose and feeling like family.
For our little tour of Italy, we scoured the country to find a bit of everything. And while our focus veered from the little, old-school red-sauce joints, we’ve assembled a glorious cross-section of regional styles, innovative fusions of style, and wood-fired glory. Grab a bib. Pour a glass of wine. And get ready for a nap. These are the best Italian restaurants in America right now.
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Los Angeles, California This industrial-feeling, ultra-hip modern Italian restaurant in Downtown LA helped changed its neighborhood from a sketchy no-man’s land to dining destination thanks to an extraordinary vibe, a great patio, and -- most importantly -- amazing food, including a housemade charcuterie spread that's got chef Ori Menashe's delicate touch all over it. Said charcuterie adorns the blistered pizza crusts that come out of the wood oven, while hand-cut pasta fills the plate with layer upon layer of flavor, with everything from a Dungeness crab/calabrian chili spaghetti rustichella and lamb pici al sugo di agnello on offer and ready to share. Start off with a roasted marrow bone, dip into pasta, and go overboard with slow-roasted lamb neck with anchovy creme fraiche or a full grilled branzino. You waited weeks to get into this place, so no sense going small here.
Birmingham, Alabama With its stone exterior, arches, 17-foot-tall ceilings, ornate staircases, and lush marble, Bottega’ss digs look like an ancient Roman structure inexplicably thrust into Birmingham. But once you’ve climbed the grand staircase to the mezzanine, you’ll find yourself at the confluence of Italy and the deep south, which makes more sense than it has any right to. Like any southern dining spot worth its considerable salt, this is a place where course is accompanied by pomp and circumstance, but chef Frank Sitts has more than a few tricks up his sleeve as he incorporates techniques and ingredients separated by continents. Here, lobster joins spaghetti in a spicy unison of flavors. Grilled quail converges with pancetta and sweet potatoes. A lamb porterhouse finds solace with Sicilian caponata, egg salad gets kicked up with pancetta and fried oysters, and fritto misto takes a cue from ettoouffe in incorporating snapper, shrimp, oysters, and peppers. The menu changes often. But what you can always expect is an experience unlike anything else.
Washington, DC Chef and owner Amy Brandwein has presided over DC's premier pasta destination since 2015, with an open kitchen sporting a wood oven that gives a clear view into all the seasonally driven deliciousness being prepared within. If you were to make your way there this fall (and what are you waiting for?), you might find yourself digging into a handmade pappardelle with chestnuts and white bolognese, or tortelloni with roasted figs and pistachios. If you fall in love with something you tasted, good news: they also have a retail market where you can snag fresh pastas, homemade sauces, and also numerous items imported from Italy.
Nashville, Tennessee Please take this small quiz: Did Tandy Wilson basically kick off the Good Food Revival Movement in Nashville when he opened City House in 2007 in the Germantown neighborhood? Was he uniquely prepared to create a game changing Italian-Southern restaurant thanks to a combination of family members still living in Italy, his Nashville upbringing, and tutelage from legendary Nashville chef Margot McCormack? Do you know of other restaurants where you can get spaghetti squash with buttermilk cheddar and kale pesto? Or a cornmeal-crusted catfish with eggplant caponata? Or Italian sausage with hot pickled turnips? Is City House the ultimate unicorn restaurant? (Answer key: yes, yes, no, no, no, yes.)
Houston, Texas Coltivare was pretty much an instant hit when it debuted a few years back from the people behind Houston's popular Revival Market, and the crowds braving the restaurants no-reservations-induced lines haven't waned much since. The 3,000sqft garden provides not only outdoor seating, but also a bevy of herbs and produce used throughout the menu ("backyard greens" are literally a side dish). Even though pepperoni pizza isn't really that Italian, their version, topped with a handmade version courtesy of Revival, is the stuff of legend, as is their take on cacio e pepe. Fair warning: they limit parties to six to help manage the crows, so only invite people you really like.
San Francisco, California When chef Michael Tusk opened Quince in 2003, it set the fine-dining world afire, especially for its ethereal pastas, which at the time were not a standard staple of the fine-dining restaurant-tasting world. But when he and his wife Lindsay opened the more casual Cotogna next door to Quince in 2010, the expectations were higher than a stereotypical, tie-dye-sporting person riding a longboard down Haight. But somehow they managed to pull it off and now, 8 years later, Cotogna remains a difficult reservation and undoubtedly Jackson Square’s showpiece casual restaurant, known as much for their famous agnolotti del plin and single game- and Instagram-changing raviolo with farm egg and brown butter as they are for wood-fired specials, cocktails, and the best focaccia outside North Beach.
Venice, California One of our picks for America’s best new restaurants last year, Felix brings some serious Italian cred to Venice, the LA-adjacent beach town more associated with juice bars and spandex-clad carbophobes than hearty, lovingly crafted pastas. That hasn’t stopped chef Evan Funke from packing seats for near-obsessive take on regional pastas, with each individual shape hand-rolled from flour imported directly from Italy. Funke trained in the castlinga, or housewife, style of cooking, a term that in LA, generally evokes terrible reality television. Here it means he trained in kitchens all over the Italian countryside, emerging with some of the nation’s best takes on classic cacio e pepe, robust mezze maniche alla vaccinara swimming in a rich oxtail ragu, or pappardelle swirling in a bolognese hit with 40 month-aged Parm. Expect to see about 10-12 pastas on the menu any given day, along with secondi like a pork shoulder steak with wildflower honey and figs, or a monstrous 60-day dry-aged porterhouse. Also expect to see many Venice residents happily stretching the concept of “cheat day” by giving in to some of the best pasta in the US.
San Francisco, California When chef Thomas McNaughton opened flour + water in 2009 after working at legendary SF restaurants Quince, Gary Danko, and La Folie, his out-of-the-way tiny Italian restaurant in the Mission unexpectedly hit a fever pitch. The Chronicle’s Michael Bauer proclaimed his pasta rivaled the previously unrivaled Quince, and national publications crowded around to herald him as a new American culinary force. Nearly 10 years later, though he’s gone on to do other projects and sits in a “culinary director” role with Ryan Pollnow running the kitchen as executive chef, the restaurant is still the Bay Area’s gold standard for both exceptional pastas (their five-course pasta tasting menu is one of the great celebration dinners), wood-fired pizzas, and pretty much anything else you want (go with a group and get the porchetta).
Boulder, Colorado 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 menu changes seasonally -- this is a rare restaurant where razor clams, veal cheek, duck, and foie gras are as likely to hit the plate as a decadent handmade pasta -- but always highlights the "flavors and international influences" of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. You’ll have a hard time choosing, so do yourself a favor and let the chef do it for you, either via a prix fixe tasting menu, or through a quattro piatti option that plays out like a choose your own adventure, only instead of dying on spikes at the end you’ll have just experienced an unforgettable meal.
Cambridge, Massachusetts In Boston, if you’re talking about Italian food, the North End rings out (and if you’re an old person, this also applies for East Boston). But since 2013, Michael Pagliarini’s Cambridge Italian joint has been the vanguard for pasta-related foodstuffs in New England. There are no bad choices here, but the best choices usually involve spaghetti ‘con alici’ (pasta with house-cured white anchovy, fennel, garlic, chilies and pangrattato), the Sardinian flatbread and anything involving warm anchovy dipping sauce.
Memphis, Tennessee If you’re looking for white tablecloths and toques, well, you’re in the wrong place. At East Memphis’ Hog & Hominy, traditional Italian fare meets southern, and if the plaid-clad servers and option to play bocce ball on the sunny outdoor seating area aren’t clues, the menu certainly is. This is a place where collard greens loaded with belly ends live comfortably alongside tuna crudo and gnocchi that takes a cue from biscuits, where wood-fired pizzas include on-point margheritas and a red-eye pie with pork belly and sugo. And while you won’t find pastas on menu, you will find oysters hit with Calabrian chili and warm under the ultra-hot oven and perhaps the best meatballs in the south. Traditional this ain’t. Not yet, anyway.
Los Angeles, California When Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo -- the guys behind the game-changing LA destinations Animal and Son of a Gun -- decide to put their names on anything, it’s worth taking notice. But when they went old-school Italian in an upscale ode to res-sauce classics and pizza, it was a minor miracle. This is an all-day kind of Italian joint, which starts the day with burrata scrambled eggs loaded with herbs and a side of bread from formidable bakery Gjusta and a breakfast pizza loaded with Yukon golds, eggs, and bacon. Those pizzas get even more complex at night, but we’d recommend getting them as a side dish to complement dishes like cavatelli with fennel sausage, or the brown-butter corn agnolotti, or wood-grilled skirt steak. This is a place that features a lot of standards that you’d see at a inconspicuous red sauce joint, but taken to the next level… yes, they have chicken parm. But order it at the risk of ruining all other versions of the Italian comfort food going forward.
San Francisco, California A Sardinian restaurant run by a husband-wife team of Chef Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan in SF’s Noe Valley neighborhood, La Ciccia has never aimed to be anything more than a local spot, but unfortunately for the people of Noe Valley, the food’s too damn good to stay strictly in that ‘hood. The three must orders, ranked by importance: Pezza de Angioni a sa Saba (seared lamb drizzled with saba, aka grape must reduction, aka a very sexy thing to explain), Pani Guttiau (Sardinian flatbread), and Prupisceddu in Umidu cun Tomatiga (essentially a spicy octopus stew). Order them with a Sardinian wine you’ve never heard of, and you will begin to understand the magic of the underrepresented region’s foods.
Seattle, Washington There’s nothing like watching an artist work to inspire the appetite. Unless the artist is one of those abstract weirdos who uses hair and stuff on a canvas, in which case this whole idiom is a bust. That’s… not the case with Le Messe, which puts its wood-topped chef’s counter front and center so you can watch the masterful kitchen staff do its thing, which happens to be rolling out some of the finest pasta in the Pacific Northwest, allowing chef Brian Clevener’s obsession with fresh, local ingredients and Italian tradition come together in dishes like the Dungeness crab-loaded tagliatelle. The chef’s seafood love is apparent throughout the menu, from the impossibly tender sockeye salmon to the squid ink spaghetti, so it stands to reason that the raw bar is a beast, where local oysters are kissed with prosecco and hamachi crudo gets even more vibrant with the addition of melon and cucumber. Consider it dinner and a show.
Brooklyn, New York To win a table at Michelin star chef Missy Robbins’ pasta palace, take your pick between lining up at opening for two-plus hours on a weeknight and calling 20 times in a row at 10am to claim a seat a month in advance. It’s been almost two years now, but the hype is still alive and well. Even Jennifer Lawrence waited like a common Brooklynite on a Monday night to enter the breezy, wood-accented space that lived its past life as a garage. What could be worth such scavenging in a town with more than a few good red sauce joints? Ask anyone lucky enough to know (except J-Law, who has for some reason blocked us), and they’ll cite deservedly famous sheep’s milk agnolotti with a velvety honey butter sauce, rotund doughnut-like cacio e pepe fritelle, and veal flank steak with hot peppers. An even hotter tip: stop by the caffé during the day for a cappuccino, soft-serve gelato, and gems of pastries like prosciutto brioche and rosemary shortbread.
Chicago, Illinois Chef Sarah Grueneberg cut her teeth at Spiaggia, a Michelin-starred Italian institution which honestly probably merits inclusion on this list as well, but her debut effort has undeniably captured the pasta-loving palates of Chicagoans everywhere -- so much so that she took home a James Beard award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2017. But enough about fancy awards, let's talk pasta! The mirrored open kitchen gives diners a prime view into the carb wizardry that's happening, with various doughs being hand-rolled or meticulously passed through an extruder at any given moment. Of course, if you have no interest in the process you can just sit on the other side of the restaurant and enjoy your glorious ricotta-filled agnolotti with chanterelles and preserved plum in blissful ignorance. Either way you'll find yourself wondering when you can come back.
Westwego, Louisiana Run by the same family since 1946, Mosca's feels like it hasn't really changed much in 70-plus years, in the best possible way. It's a bit of a journey, but New Orleanians have gladly braved it for generations in pursuit of Mosca's singular Creole-Italian cooking: Italian crab salad, Oysters Mosca, Shrimp Mosca, Chicken a la Grande, and spaghetti bordelaise. You may or may not be familiar with those creations, but just know that the common denominators are lots of oil, lots of garlic, and overwhelming happiness.
Portland, Oregon Back when it opened in 2005, Nostrana helped usher in the golden age of Portland dining, embracing locally sourced ingredients and seamlessly incorporating them into upscale Italian dining while keeping everything affordable. What’s more remarkable, though, is that nearly 15 years later, perpetual James Beard finalist Cathy Whims' Nostrana is still a paragon of the Portland scene, which has seen so many pioneers come and go. Here, hand-cut pappardelle might be stuffed with goat cheese, or one of the place’s legendary pizzas -- which got their own spin off in Whims’ Oven & Shaker sister restaurant -- might come topped with fresh Dungeness crab from the coast, while the charcuterie menu puts a strong focus on hams and rillettes. It’s a place where familiar, traditional dishes from the countryside meet the unexpected. In fact, the only thing you can expect is that whatever’s going to come out of that well-worn wood-fired oven -- be it the gigantic bone-in ribeye or a rolled pork arrotolato -- is going to be near perfect, and no matter what you’ll always be able to get a signature pizza for under $10 during happy hour.
Chicago, Illinois A regionally focused restaurant with an affinity for Piedmontese fare, Osteria Langue is the kind of intimate neighborhood restaurant that makes every visitor from outside the neighborhood (Logan Square in this case) mad with jealousy that they don't have one. Usually said jealousy really comes to a head with the first bite of plin, a filled pasta that feels like a bowl of the tiniest ravioli filled with creamy La Tur cheese and dressed simply in butter and thyme. Get two orders. Even if there are only two of you. Also not to be missed are the vitello tonnato -- thin slices of poached beef topped with a creamy tuna citrus aioli, and a thoughtful wine list that continues the restaurant's regional specificity.
New York, New York From the soft, glimmering lights to the wooden raft ceiling, few could tell the difference from the inside of this Little Italy tavern and a trattoria Fiorentina nestled on a narrow stone-paved road. Dreamt up by pasta powerhouse Michael White, the Emilia-Romagna style tagliatelle, cappelletti, agnolotti, and plenty more assorted salty, oily shapes of fresh dough are deeply satisfying in taste and texture. Duck liver mousse offers a taste of Italy that’s less common in this country, while fried bolognese street snacks fuse Italian flavor with an American appetite. Chewy, handmade gnocchi topped with short rib is a master class of texture. If you think the pasta is something special, wait till you see the beverage list. No wonder the late, great Anthony Bourdain called it one of his favorite New York restaurants. The place is transportative without requiring any transportation other than a cab ride.
Wauwatosa, Wisconsin For a quarter-century this rustic outpost in a historic building in a quaint Milwaukee suburb has been turning out bonafide pilgrimage-worthy Italian food, Current chef Juan Urbieta spent time at Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago and Italy before making his way to Milwaukee. The menu remains as vital as ever -- handmade papardelle with slow-braised duck ragu, similarly handmade spaghetti with spiny lobster, and a four-course chef's menu that comes in at a paltry $60. Of course, going rogue and ordering four pastas is also a perfectly defensible choice.
St. Louis, Missouri When Trattoria Marcella opened Ozzie Smith was still playing shortstop for the Cardinals (the year was 1995 for those more interested in pasta than the backs of baseball cards), and the landscape of St. Louis Italian food was about to be forever changed. Twenty-three years and countless accolades later it remains a force to be reckoned with, as chef and owner Steve Komorek keeps diners coming back with the likes of caramelized cacio e pepe cauliflower, crispy chicken liver risotto, and an osso bucco over polenta that would likely make Ozzie Smith do a backflip, assuming he can still do those.
Phoenix, Arizona When traveling to Phoenix, there can be a counterintuitive pang to actively try and go to places superstar James Beard award winning chef Chris Bianco isn’t involved with, as a way of diverging from the norm and exercising some sort of independent thought. This would be a mistake. Bianco is an interstellar talent on his own, but he’s also an underrated manager and nurturer of others, and Trattom his ambitious and sincere Italian restaurant, has served as a launching pad for chefs like Tony Andiario and now Cassie Shortino. The food here, especially the pastas, sit on an island by themselves in Phoenix. On a recent trip, one of our writers and his party got every single pasta on the menu, and doubled up on the rigatoni and cacio e pepe special. Not a single plate wasn’t cleaned that night. It is a destination restaurant, just randomly in the destination of a Town and Country upscale suburban strip mall in Arizona.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 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 the old townhome, 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 personal tastes and seasonal flavors. A recent seating featured antipasti courses like smoked beef tongue and prosciutto cotto; pasta ran from pork shank gemelli to almond tortellini with white truffle sauce; and monkfish osso buco and duck were among the mains. 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.
New York, New York This romantic, walk-in, no-res West Village restaurant -- the younger Italian sister to the nearby Buvette -- is down to earth yet delicious. It is an exercise in anticipation, one where waiting is just part of an experience. The vibe of a cozy, old fashioned wine bar -- the waiting list is written in chalk and the tables are tiny for anywhere west of Europe -- meets the spirit of a food-lovers’ fairyland, making it the perfect restaurant to impress and woo a date. Carnivores will find satisfaction in a hearty bowl of wild boar ragu pappardelle for a substantial primo piatto, followed by the signature Svizzerina, which translates to chopped steak, but really is more like a seared, rare, bunless burger accompanied by nothing more than a few rosemary sprigs, garlic cloves, and a drizzle of olive oil. Adventurous diners must try the fried rabbit: it’s like a plate of breaded chicken wings, but considerably more tender and definitely more of a conversation starter. Much of the menu is plant-based too, and many will delight in minty artichokes and the simple, salty cacio e pepe you've been dreaming of. Probably while waiting to get a table to eat it.
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