Food & Drink

The Best Italian Restaurants in San Diego

Published On 06/10/2015 Published On 06/10/2015

San Diego’s diverse dining scene sometimes offers hungry locals almost too many options, especially when it comes to Italian food. From neighborhood staples that have been throwing down impressive plates of pasta and pizza for years, to showy new spots that aim to shake things up, we’re spoiled with options for a solid Italian meal. To help you hone in on the best places to chow down, here are the nine best Italian restaurants in San Diego.

Lyudmila Zotova

Barbusa

Little Italy

As expected, there’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Little Italy, but this modern Sicilian trattoria owned by the Busalacchi family (who also operate Busalacchi’s A Modo Mio in Hillcrest and Trattoria Fantastica) is one of the best options in the neighborhood, or anywhere. It’s upbeat and buzzy inside, with pop art posters and modern decor, but service is old-school (i.e. attentive!), and the prices are completely reasonable. When in doubt, opt for pasta. All of the different varieties, from bucatini (with broccoli stock, garlic, pepperoncino, and breadcrumbs) to gnocchi (with pistachio pesto and roasted tomatoes) are made fresh in-house.

Bice San Diego

Bice

Gaslamp

There’s a good deal of Italian restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter, but if you’re looking for quality fare served in a sophisticated space, Bice is your best bet. Dinner entrees are on the pricier side (that's up-to-$33-a-plate expensive), but worth the investment when you’re prepared to splurge. Don't miss the opportunity for a cheese plate -- there's an extensive list of "lighter" to "intense" varieties to choose from. If you’re watching your budget, stop by during happy hour when you can snag 10 different enticing small plates, like marshmallow tempura, ahi tuna tartar, or beef carpaccio, for $5 apiece.

Civico 1845

Civico 1845

Little Italy

Located right beside the Piazza Basilone, this charming spot is ideally situated in Little Italy. With its white brick exterior and walls covered in reclaimed wood planks, it’s the picture-perfect spot for a romantic date. There are a handful of classic Italian dishes on the menu, but for the most part, expect modern spins on the hits. Most items can be made gluten-free, and good news for vegans: there's an extensive meat- and dairy-free menu, with dishes like fettuccini Bolognese with seitan ragout, gnocchi with eggplant caponata, and strawberry cake.

Bencotto

Little Italy

When you eat at Bencotto, you're getting pasta. Definitely pasta. There’s no better place for a bowl of carbs in San Diego, where multiple varieties, ranging from fusilli to gnocchi, are made fresh daily. Design your own bowl by selecting the sauce and pasta type. If you’ve never tried the salsiccia (Italian sausage in a spicy tomato sauce) with a broad noodle, like tagliatelle or pappardelle, now's the time. The sleek, industrial decor and energetic dining room make it a great choice for dinner, but floor-to-ceiling windows that splash the space with natural light mean it’s equally excellent as a lunch pick (and because portions are generous, leftovers are more than likely when you dine midday).

Monello

Monello

Little Italy

Owned by the same team as Bencotto, Monello has a similar aesthetic, but feels a few degrees more casual. The extensive menu features several pizzas, seafood, delicious fried things, and a lot more. If you’re craving a bowl of pasta, you’ll be well served at either location, but Monello gets bonus points for its pizza oven, being one of only a few Italian restaurants with a dedicated brunch menu, and for offering a free small plate with a drink purchase during aperitivo (4 to 7pm, daily). You can't go wrong with the polipo alla griglia (grilled octopus with arugula, fennel, and tomatoes); spaghetti with ragu, or Isola Galleggiante, a mound of soft, baked meringue with crème anglaise and fresh berries.

Solare

Point Loma

Accursio Lota, the Sicilian-born chef that helms this Southern Italian restaurant, has earned a lot of recognition from local diners (and publications) for his carefully updated classics, like carpaccio with balsamic pearls and cheese foam, and carefully executed pasta, like Carpaccio di Wagyu and Gnocchi al Nero (squid ink gnocchi with orange zest, served with calamari, sea urchin, and roasted almonds), and pizzas. The Liberty Station location makes parking a breeze, and there’s also a wide, covered patio with a serene view of a grassy field.

BOTTEGA AMERICANO

Bottega Americano

East Village

Bottega’s expansive menu spans salumi and cheese, pizza, pasta, and oven-roasted meats, but the over-achieving dishes are found in the entree section. Try the scallops with mushrooms, celery root, English pea fritter, and shellfish brodetto, or the bricked half chicken, with sweet corn, roasted cipollini onions, sugar snap peas, farro, and piquillo pepper harissa. To finish, go with a light, fruit-forward dessert from the dining room menu, or swing by the case at the front for a slice of flourless chocolate torte. Clearly, this Italian stunner in the East Village has a lot by way of recommendations, including an exhibition-style pasta station, bar, bakery, coffee bar, and onsite marketplace where you can score everything from fancy oils to fava bean hummus, pizza sauce, and burrata cheese.

Davanti Enoteca

Davanti Enoteca

Little Italy and Carmel Valley

Straightforward presentations of rustic Italian fare make this Chicago import right at home in San Diego, but prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to eat unseemly amounts of carbs and cheese at Davanti Enoteca. Start with shared plates like the egg truffle toast with fontina and asparagus; roasted tomato with pesto, burrata, and toast; and an order of focaccia di Recco with honeycomb. Then, move on to cacio e pepe (spaghetti swirled with pecorino cheese and black pepper) or mascarpone polenta with ragu. There’s also excellent goat cheese cheesecake with salted caramel drizzle, but it’s so huge, you should probably get it to go. This cozy spot is suitable for everything from a quick bite and a cocktail after work to a full-blown family dinner where everyone, including the dog, is invited (both locations have a pet-friendly patio).

Cucina Enoteca & Cucina Urbana

Del Mar and Bankers Hill

Visiting this busy duo for a meal is a must for any San Diegan serious about good food. Both Cucina Urbana & Enoteca have the same modern-yet-chic decor, with eye-catching elements like pillars clad in colorful reclaimed wood or antler chandeliers, but the airy patio gives the Del Mar outpost the edge. Go for the fried squash blossoms stuffed with herbed ricotta, basil pesto, and lemon aioli (as a shared app) and whatever pizza tempts you the most. The margherita is solid if you love a red sauce pie, or go with the pancetta and Brussels sprout leaf if you dig on white pies. Got a sweet tooth? You’ll want to reserve room for something like ricotta zeppole (Italian donuts) or dark chocolate budino.

KYLE HALL/THRILLIST

Buona Forchetta

South Park

This favorite among neighborhood locals (and not-so-locals) churns out top-notch thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pies. The 35 different pizzas on offer -- mostly with proper, Italian names -- range from margherita (the gold standard upon which any pizzeria can be measured), to pies topped with shrimp, salmon, speck, and even fried eggplant. The small dining area can get crowded, but pizzas cook in minutes, so it’s rare to have to wait very long once you’re seated. Nab yourself a red pie, a white pie, and an order of ravioli. And though it's known for pizza, the pasta here is no slouch. Finish it off with some of the tiramisu -- it’s so tasty that you'd be crazy not to order one per person.

ERIN JACKSON/THRILLIST

Buon Appetito

Little Italy

For more than a decade, this classic Italian restaurant has been filling bellies with generous plates of pasta, grilled meats, and primo vino from Italy and around the world. Friendly servers who seem to take every available opportunity to invoke the name of the restaurant and a cozy sidewalk patio are bonuses (but, fair warning: the tables are super close together). Every meal starts with bread service, where a soft, sliced roll is delivered to your table with oil and balsamic vinegar and a small bowl of marinara sauce. Tear into it and sop up as much sauce as you can, then ask for more bread to take care of the rest. Try the Farfalle con Pollo Affumicato (smoked chicken breast with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms in a white wine cream sauce) or Borsettini di Aragosta (house-made pocket pasta with lobster, tossed in a Champagne cream sauce).

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Erin Jackson is a San Diego-based food writer and photographer who loves sharing her latest finds. If you enjoy food and cat photos, by all means, follow her on Instagram.

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1. Barbusa 1917 India St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

There’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Little Italy, but this modern Sicilian trattoria owned by the Busalacchi family (who also operate Busalacchi’s A Modo Mio in Hillcrest and Trattoria Fantastica) is one of the best options in the neighborhood, or anywhere. It’s upbeat and buzzy inside, with pop art posters and modern decor, but service is old-school (i.e. attentive!) and the prices are completely reasonable. When in doubt, opt for pasta: all of the different varieties, from bucatini to gnocchi are rolled out in-house. If you judge an Italian restaurant by its bread basket, then Barbusa and the wood-fired garlic focaccia it serves in lieu of bread, will pass with flying colors.

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2. BiCE 425 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 (Gaslamp Quarter)

BiCE is an innovative Italian resto in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter by chef Mario Cassineri, and's dishing out seasonally inspired Boot-themed fare.

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3. Civico 1845 1845 India St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

This place serves up Italian favorites but adds a modern edge with its vegan and gluten-free menu. Don't skimp on the vino as the wine list is extensive.

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4. Bencotto Italian Kitchen 750 W Fir St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

Bencotto sets the bar high for fine Italian food, even in the heart of Little Italy. The menu showcases pasta with an option that lets you choose your sauce and type, the latter of which includes fresh strands made with semolina or whole-wheat flour, filled varieties like spinach ravioli and gorgonzola gnocchi, and artisanal pasta that's slowly dried at a low-temperature until it achieves an al dente texture. The ambience is well suited for date night -- as are shared plates liked saffron risotto balls and burrata.

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5. Monello 750 W Fir St, Ste 102 B, Little Italy, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

Pizza makers at this hopping Italian restaurant in Little Italy owned by the same team behind Bencotto put the same dedication into crafting a perfect pizza dough as they do fresh pasta next door. The dough (made with yeast and flour imported from Italy) slowly ferments over several days before it’s stretched, topped, and baked in a brick-lined gas oven. There's also a nifty cocktail menu that includes Italian drinks, signature cocktails, and several Grappa infusions.

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6. Solare 2820 Roosevelt Rd, San Diego, CA 92106 (Point Loma)

This place serves up carefully updated classics, like carpaccio with balsamic pearls and cheese foam, and carefully executed pasta and pizza dishes. The Liberty Station location makes parking a breeze, and there’s also a wide, covered patio with a view of a grassy field. Try the Carpaccio di Wagyu, Gnocchi al Nero (squid ink gnocchi with orange zest, served with calamari, sea urchin, and roasted almonds), and a Margherita pizza.

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7. Bottega Americano 1195 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 (East Village)

This East Village European market/Italian eatery offers pasta, wood-fired pizzas, anti-pastas, and seafood dishes. There are also five interactive food bars, so you can see all the action happening in the kitchen, or grab-and-go from the market.

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8. Davanti Enoteca 1655 India St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

This Italian mini-chain -- whose Little Italy location in San Diego is one of a few nationwide -- offers a fine selection of all your marinara-sauced favorites. Curated meats, craft cheese plates, and chicken liver pâté are popular shared options for groups, while Davanti's famed cheese curd-topped patties will thrill anyone looking for a new burger. The restaurant's patio -- lit up with twinkling lights -- is host to a regular evening crowd from happy hour through dinner.

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9. Cucina Enoteca 2730 Via de La Valle, Del Mar, CA 92014 (Del Mar)

This addition to Urban Kitchen’s ever-growing resto roster is a farmhouse-/equestrian-inspired Italian haven called Cucina Enoteca in Del Mar. It's one elaborate venue, with two impeccably appointed stories (pro tip: anything you see can be a hostess stand). The menu's deep, with fresh house-made pastas, pizzas, and their signature giant meatball smothered in marinara, which's best washed down with one of their Italian beers. When it's warm, hit the airy outdoor patio.

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10. CUCINA urbana 505 Laurel St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Bankers Hill)

CUCINA urbana, a pizza and wine bar right off Balboa Park, is reliable for a long list of Italian classics: from short rib parpardelle to spicy shrimp Puttanesca tangled in angel hair pasta. The best time to come to the rustic-chic space, though, is during happy hour, for cheap cocktails and discounted pizzas. Doughy, sugar-powdered zeppole will leave you wanting more.

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11. Buona Forchetta 3001 Beech St, San Diego, CA 92102 (South Park)

Buona Forchetta is cozy with a patio ideal for enjoying a glass of wine. The secret to its irresistible Neapolitan-style pizza is Sophia, a gleaming, golden, wood-fired oven designed by Stefano Ferrara in Naples, and named for the owner’s daughter. This South Park favorite has 35 pies at the ready and you really can’t make a bad call, whether you go simple with the margherita or opt for more substantial toppings. Pro tip: hold on to the olive oil and balsamic from bread service; you’ll want a puddle of it to drag your crusts through.

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12. Buon Appetito 1609 India St, San Diego, CA 92101 (Little Italy)

For 12 years, this classic Italian restaurant has been filling bellies with generous plates of pasta, grilled meat entrees and primo vino from Italy and around the world. Friendly servers who seem to take every available opportunity to invoke the name of the restaurant and a cozy sidewalk patio are bonuses. Every meal starts with bread service, where a soft, sliced roll is delivered to your table with oil and balsamic vinegar and a small bowl of marinara sauce. Tear into it and sop up as much sauce as you can, then ask for more bread to take care of the rest. It’s seriously good stuff.

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