Food & Drink

The Best Old-School Red Sauce Italian Joints in NYC

Published On 02/01/2016 Published On 02/01/2016
Cole Saladino/Thrillist



A recent appearance on Master of None may have revived its social relevance, but regulars will proudly boast that Bamonte’s has always been the best gig in town. Situated beneath a mammoth glowing sign on an otherwise quiet Williamsburg street, Bamonte’s is a time-capsule in both product and presentation -- the menu is classic, the staff serves in tuxes, and the walls are lined with a who’s who of Italian fame. And with the affordable price-point to match its retro feel, you can order as much manicotti, mussels, and chicken Parm as you damn please.

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Villa Berulia

Murray Hill

A sophisticated establishment specializing in Northern Italian fare, Villa Berulia makes a splash with tux-donned waiters, an impressive array of daily specials, and an atmosphere that is at once classy yet cozy. Enjoy feathery fried calamari, succulent veal scaloppine, and a colorful wall of fame featuring the likes of Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, and Hillary Clinton.



Anyone who knows anything knows that the real Little Italy is in the Bronx on Arthur Ave, and places like Mario’s have the chops to prove it. In business over 92 years, Mario’s delivers buttery linguine and clams, red sauce-covered spaghetti and meatballs, and painfully tender osso buco in absolutely insane portions. 

Flickr/Howard Walfish

Ferdinando’s Focacceria

Carroll Gardens

A traditional Sicilian joint with the no-nonsense attitude to match, Ferdinando’s is all about being authentically badass. Come for the softball-sized rice balls that will make you cry with joy -- get “the works”, trust us -- and stay for the potato croquettes with panelle (a Sicilian chickpea fritter) and world-class cannoli.

Emilio’s Ballato 

Emilio’s Ballato


Any restaurant that serves free homemade sausage bread is a legend in our books, and that’s just the beginning of why we’re obsessed with Emilio’s. Owner Emilio Vitolo can usually be spotted at his favorite, right-of-entrance table where his presence only seems intimidating. Freefall into a literal mountain of spaghetti and meatballs, gorge on extra crispy baked clams, and keep an eye out for Billy Joel, who’s a regular.


Greenwich Village

A village fixture since 1919, Gene’s brims with all the charm you’d expect out of an old-school joint, and we like it that way. The antique decor matches the longstanding clientele, but one taste of the buttery veal marsala or light-as-air manicotti will make it clear why the regulars keep coming back for more.

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Giant leather booths, recently bailed mobsters, and the judges who convict them -- this is a typical scene at Forlini’s. Serving the “courthouse crowd” for over 70 years, Forlini’s is a bona fide institution with the gangster clientele and has ridiculously good red sauce to back it up. Feast on crab-stuffed shrimp in butter sauce, eggplant Parm, and a lasagna that may rival your grandma’s.


Upper East Side

There’s a pianist up front, a riotous crowd in the back, and an old-school cash register behind the bar -- these are just some of the many reasons to love Campagnola. Big portions, elegant service, and a lively environment dominate this UES joint that serves up delicious red sauce fare like penne puttanesca, lobster & spaghetti, and pillowy gnocchi. But while the savory stuff is enough to seal the deal, the dessert makes it a grand slam -- order the dessert platter and enjoy a sea of gorgeously presented tartufo, gelato, sorbet, and cannolis.




At this decades-old establishment the waiter is your menu. Choose from one of your server’s selections or request your own personal favorite -- lasagna, baked ziti, veal milanese? If the product is on hand (and it almost always is) the chef will make it for you, and it’ll be fantastic. Seating is communal and most entrees are $20 or less.


Greenwich Village

This sophisticated subterranean restaurant on West 4th has been feeding village residents and NYU students alike since the ‘70s. It’s a low-key joint even with waiters in tuxes and a classic red sauce menu boasting huge portions of braciola with gnocchi, sole sauteed in lemon and capers, and wild porcini penne. 

Courtesy of Il Vagabondo

Il Vagabondo

Upper East Side

When an old-school Italian joint has an indoor bocce court, you know it’s legit. That’s just one of the reasons we love Il Vagabondo, where the service is friendly, the tables are checkered, and Tom Hanks is a regular. The chicken Parm is large enough to feed an army, and the meatballs are mammoth-sized and coated in meat sauce.


Cobble Hill

Sam’s is a classic old Brooklyn joint outfitted in red-checkered tablecloths and red leather booths, and offering some of the best brick-oven pizza in the city. Look out for the highly entertaining owner, Louie, who will be sure to talk your ear off. 

Il Mulino

Il Mulino

Greenwich Village

For over 20 years, Il Mulino has been serving some of the city’s best Italian food in unparalleled style. Classic dishes like clams casino and spaghetti bolognese are complemented by more modern fare like filet of beef with spicy caper sauce. 


East Harlem

One of the country’s oldest family-owned restaurants (and still in its original location!), Rao’s has been serving red sauce realness for over 100 years with an array of Italian classics like fried mozzarella sandwiches, gigantic meatballs, and penne alla vodka. The 10-table VIP establishment is notoriously impossible to get into, so godspeed trying to score a seat.

Flickr/Eden, Janine and Jim

John’s of 12th Street

East Village

Low lighting, wooden booths, and friendly service all lend a quiet charm to this East Village mainstay that’s been delivering authentic Italian eats for over 100 years. Perfect for Sunday dinners (or when you feel like eating your weight in red sauce), spend a night here tasting everything from the homemade pappardelle with beef ragu to sausage parmesan and heavenly veal meatballs.

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1. Bamonte's 32 Withers St, Brooklyn, NY 11211

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.

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2. Villa Berulia 107 E 34th St, New York, NY 10016

Specializing in Norther Italian fare, Villa Berulia's tux-donned waiters and daily specials give the restaurant a cozy yet classy feel. Try the fried calamari and veal scallopine for an exceptional meal.

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3. Mario's Restaurant 2342 Arthur Ave, Bronx, NY 10458

Expect nothing less than an authentic Italian-American experience at this red-sauce joint that's been in business for more than 90 years. The Arthur Ave spot focuses on classics like linguine and clams, chicken parm, and ossu buco, but you'd be remiss if you didn't order the margherita pizza. It's hidden under the appetizer section on the menu, so make sure you ask for it in a large unless you want a tiny starter pie. In case you needed more proof that Mario's is legit, here's some trivia: a scene from The Sopranos was filmed inside.

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4. Ferdinando's Focacceria 151 Union St, Brooklyn, NY 11231

This family-run Sicilian restaurant (with a crazy-long history) was initially a lunch spot for longshoremen who worked close by -- you can actually still find traces of its early days there in black-and-white photos and statues of St. Francis and the Virgin Mary. It may be a little off-the-beaten-path, but the hearty Sicilian eats, like cheesy rice balls, sandwiches (get the meatball topped with ricotta), pastas, and panelle won’t disappoint.

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5. Emilio's Ballato 55 E Houston St, New York, NY 10012

While Emilio's Ballato may be best known for serving the occasional celebrity patron, it remains a Houston Street hidden gem, serving up satisfying Italian fare sans pretension. The well-worn storefront belies a gloriously old school dining room strewn with chandeliers and vintage knickknacks that's helmed by a fast talking waitstaff that'll gladly recommend primi and secondi to those overwhelmed by the extensive menu.

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6. Gene's 73 W 11th St, New York, NY 10011

A Greenwich Village establishment since 1919, Gene's serves up quality, old-school Italian plates in an antique setting.

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7. Forlini's 98 Baxter St., New York, NY 10013

Serving the “courthouse crowd” since the 1940s, this Little Italy restaurant is a bona fide institution with known for a clientele made up of recently bailed mobsters and the judges who convict them, and a ridiculously good red sauce to back it up. Feast on crab-stuffed shrimp in butter sauce, eggplant Parm, lasagna, the signature cheesecake, and variety of other Italian standards that are only second to your Nonna's.

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8. Campagnola Restaurant 1382 1st Ave, New York, NY 10021

A classic old-school Italian joint, Campagnola's serves up large portions of quality red sauce fare like penne puttanesca and lobster and spaghetti. And while the savory stuff is enough to seal the deal, the dessert makes it a grand slam -- order the dessert platter for a sweet tooth-engorging sea of tartufo, gelato, sorbet, and cannolis.

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9. Dominick's 2335 Arthur Ave, Bronx, NY 10458

Pizza evangelists consider the plain slice to be the standard by which all pizzerias should be judged. Gourmet pizza aficionados know this is the false truth of narrow-minded fools. Unsurprisingly, the plain here does not inspire, but once you get into toppings territory, it’s game over. Moist, lemony chicken cutlet with fresh tomato is a winner, as is the rich shrimp scampi. While most gourmet slices can’t handle their heft, this pizza’s thick (but not overly bread-y) crust provides support for scarfing.

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10. Volare 147 W 4th St, New York, NY 10012

The waiter's may be wearing tuxes and serving classic red sauce fare, but Volare is actually pretty low-key and has been serving Village residents since the 1970s.

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11. Il Vagabondo 351 E 62nd St, New York, NY 10065

Il Vagabondo is a traditional Italian eatery on the Upper East Side that's been around since 1965. This old school spot is known for its easy going atmosphere, classic Italian fare like chicken Parm, and an actual indoor bocce court. The slender dining room runs alongside the bocce court, so feel free to entertain yourself by watching people play while you eat, or get in the game yourself.

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12. Sam's 238 Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

This red sauce Italian joint in Cobble Hill has remain unchanged since opening in 1930. The basement space is outfitted with red checkered tablecloths and red leather booths, aka it's the perfect place to enjoy brick-oven pizza made with a thick-for-New-York crust and a liberal amount of sauce and cheese. The menu also includes basic Italian dishes like spaghetti with meatballs, baked clams, and lasagna. The real star of the place is Louis, the son of the original owner who mans the dining room with a gruff and no-nonsense manner.

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13. Il Mulino New York 86 W 3rd St, New York, NY 10012

Look no further for great Italian in NYC. Il Mulino's Greenwich Village location has been regarded as the best Italian spot for over two decades for its service, generous portions, and wine selection.

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14. Rao's 455 E 114th St, New York, NY 10029

One of the country's oldest family-owned restaurants (and still in its original location), Rao's in East Harlem has been serving red sauce Italian classics for over 100 years. The 10-table VIP establishment is notoriously hard/impossible to get into, so if you do score a seat, eat as much fried mozzarella, meatballs, and penne alla vodka as you can. If not, don't worry -- there are Rao's sauces and cookbooks available for purchase so you can DIY at home.

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15. John's of 12th Street 302 E 12th St, New York, NY 10003

John's of 12th Street is a reliable old-school Italian joint in the East Village that's been open since 1908. Tucked in old-style town house, John's hearty approach to Italian cooking (lots of cream, olive oil, and red sauce) has largely remained the same since it first opened its doors. While the meatballs may be the restaurant's pièce de résistance, John's is also known for its perhaps incongruous, albeit delicious, vegan menu.