America’s 20 Best Italian Restaurants (Slideshow)
August 30, 2013
Checkered tablecloths are a thing of the past
20) Davanti Enoteca, Chicago
Chef/restaurateur Scott Harris is the brains behind the more than 20 Francesca’s restaurants in the Chicago area, but this rustic Little Italy enoteca is his masterpiece. Communal tables made from reclaimed wood and bare brick walls create the ideal ambiance for a meal filled with hearty Italian fare, including a wide variety of salumi and cheese, fiendishly delicious truffled egg toast, pastas including expertly prepared cacio e pepe and pork cheek and ricotta gnudi, and mains like seared day boat scallops with fava beans, pea tendrils, and guanciale. There’s an in-house wine shop, which helps to keep wine prices down (bottles average around $40), and nothing on the menu costs more than $21.
19) Vincenti Ristorante, Los Angeles
Maureen Vincenti’s Brentwood eatery is an old-fashioned Italian classic. This mature (in all the best possible ways) dining room is hitting all the right notes: accented servers work with flawless proficiency, Maureen herself works the room like a pro, the pleasant light wood and elegant ambiance is relaxing but neither uptight nor sleep-inducing, and through the glass partition is the reassuring sight of chef Nicola Mastronardi, who’s turning out nothing but stellar food. The menu is comforting and classic, with pastas including house-made tortelli filled with osso bucco and risotto with artichokes, shrimp, and veal sweetbreads; wood-burning-oven entrées including their legendary whole roasted dover sole, sliced New York steak with herb raviolo, and house-made pork sausage with Brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes; and on Monday their thin-crust pizzas are some of the best around.
18) Palena, Washington, D.C.
James Beard Award-winning Frank Ruta named his restaurant after the small town in Italy’s Abruzzo region that was his mother’s birthplace, and he’s modeled his menu after the region’s simple, rustic native fare. The restaurant is divided into three sections: the casual café features a moderately priced à la carte menu with dishes like porchetta-style Pennsylvania rabbit with fennel remoulade, torchietti with homemade cotecchino sausage, a stellar wood-oven roasted chicken, and a burger that’s nothing short of legendary (one of our 40 Best Burgers in America); the upscale Dining Room features a three- or five-course prix fixe menu highlighting seasonal ingredients in dishes like Horst Cooperative beef cheeks braised with baby artichokes, rhubarb, and almonds; and the Market sells artisan products that are used in the restaurants as well as coffee and ready-to-eat sweet and savory treats.
17) Oliveto Restaurant & Café, Oakland, Calif.
With acclaimed chef Paul Bertolli at the helm, Oliveto was considered by many to be the best Italian restaurant in the United States for many years before he left to start Fra Mani in 2005 and the restaurant began to coast. But all that changed in 2010, when Jonah Rhodehamel took over. The menu he introduced was vibrant and soulful, and since then Oliveto has returned to be a major player in the scene. The menu changes daily, but always features unexpected local fare like pan-roasted Monterrey Bay sardines (with fregola) and Santa Barbara sea urchin (with spaghetti in tomato sauce), and purveyors are always listed on the menu. At Oliveto you’ll try dishes and flavor combinations that you’ve never experienced before that are at once familiar and completely unique, and you’ll be very glad that you did.
16) Scampo, Boston
James Beard Award-winning chef Lydia Shire is one of Boston’s most legendary chefs, and her restaurant, Scampo, is one of the best Italian restaurants you’ll ever dine at. While Italian at heart, Shire isn’t afraid to incorporate a tandoori oven or lamb sirloin souvlaki into the mix, and the menu is fun and playful. Handmade breads come in seven varieties; foie gras on toasted homemade brioche comes with chocolate cherries and almonds; there’s a full "mozzarella bar;" spaghetti comes topped with cracklings and hot pepper; pizza is topped with house-cured bacon, smashed plantains ,and ricotta; and grilled lobster is served with pancetta vinaigrette, pickled corn shoots, and sweet corn pots de crème. It’s one of those menus where literally everything looks delicious… but we’ll be waiting for Friday night, when the special is roast suckling pig.
15) Valentino, Santa Monica, Calif.
For more than 40 years, Piero Selvaggio's Santa Monica landmark has set the standard for Italian fine dining in America. He served real Italian pastas and such things as radicchio and balsamic vinegar when they were exotica in this country; he absorbed the inspirations of the nuova cucina and modernized his menu without losing touch with the homeland; he survived earthquakes and economic downturns and the onslaught of new, hip places that could have pushed his restaurant into the Boring Old Standby category — but didn't. Today, he is turning increasingly back to Italian regional cooking — especially that of Sicily, where he comes from, and Sardinia, birthplace of chef Nico Chessa. Yes, you can have prosciutto and melon or spaghetti alla carbonara here, and they'll be impeccable — but why not try the chilled eggplant terrine, the lasagne della nonna (grandmother's lasagna) with mushroom and duck ragù, the orecchiette in the style of Bari, with broccolini and peperoncini, or the Roman-style braised oxtail with bitter chocolate sauce? The wine list is one of the largest and richest in America, and service is perfect.
14) Staple & Fancy Mercantile, Seattle
In the Seattle dining scene, Ethan Stowell essentially reigns supreme. He’s opening up new restaurants there all the time, but his most acclaimed eatery, Staple & Fancy, is in a league all its own. There’s an à la carte menu, but diners are encouraged to pay it no heed and leave their meal in the kitchen’s hands; for $48 per person, they’ll prepare a four-course family-style meal for your table, and they feel so strongly that you should do this that right there on the menu they say, "We would also like to inform you that you really should do this." So what can you expect? Perhaps a wood-grilled whole fish with brown butter, capers, lemon, and fried herbs; perhaps a bowl of bucatini amatriciana with guanciale, tomato, and pecorino Toscano. Whatever you end up with, you’ll leave fully confident that your dinner was worth far more than $48, and glad that you put it in the kitchen’s hands.
13) Domenica, New Orleans
John Besh is a master of Creole cooking, but at Domenica, located in New Orleans’ Roosevelt Hotel (home of the original Sazerac), he’s proving that he’s also got a knack for Italian fare, but giving it his own unique kick. In this casual and elegant high-ceilinged dining room, chef Alon Shaya is serving more than 15 pizzas, including ones topped with gorgonzola, peaches, speck, and pecans; smoked pork, mozzarella, red onion, Anaheim chile, and salsa verde; and roast pork shoulder with fennel, bacon, and sweet onions. There’s also a wide variety of house-cured meats, pastas including sweet corn and Louisiana shrimp risotto and stracci with oxtail and fried chicken livers, and entrées include a pan-roasted chicken with okra, olives, pine nuts, tomato, and basil mascarpone. Make sure you save room for dessert: the oven-roasted peach cake is a work of singular genius.
12) Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Las Vegas
When two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Bartolotta, who'd made his name at Spiaggia in Chicago, was approached by Las Vegas hotelier and casino mogul Steve Wynn about opening a showplace restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas, he agreed on the condition that he could fly in the freshest possible fish and shellfish daily, directly from the Mediterranean. Wynn agreed — which is why, today, some of the freshest seafood it is possible to enjoy in America is found in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The choices in this cool, multi-level restaurant include not just the expected sea scallops, mussels, swordfish, and such, but also real Italian vongole (clams), Mediterranean spiny lobster, wild turbot, red mullet, and more. Of course, there's good meat and poultry and plenty of pasta, too (the simple homemade square-cut spaghetti with tomatoes and basil may sound boring, but is a must-have).
11) Al Forno, Providence, R.I.
On South Main Street in the heart of Providence, R.I., Al Forno offers a quintessential Italian dining experience for those who can’t afford the flight to Italy. Husband-and-wife owner-chefs George Germon and Johanne Killeen received the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano from the Italian government, a rare honor for Americans, attributable to their informed passion for pasta along with their invention of the grilled pizza. Their grilled pizza margarita, with fresh herbs, pomodoro, two cheeses, and extra-virgin olive oil, is probably their most notable pie and made The Daily Meal's list of the America's 35 Best Pizzas.
10) Al di Là, Brooklyn, N.Y.
When chef Anna Klinger and husband Emiliano Coppa opened the Venetian-inspired Al di Là on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue in 1998, it was located on a sleepy thoroughfare perhaps best known for its wide variety of bodegas, and most Manhattanites wouldn’t have even considered heading out to Brooklyn for a meal. But by the time then-New York Times critic Frank Bruni got around to giving the trattoria two stars in 2006, it was widely regarded to be the neighborhood’s best restaurant, packing in crowds every night and anchoring a burgeoning restaurant row on the now-thriving avenue. Klinger’s moderately priced menu of home-style antipasti, pastas, and braised and grilled meats rarely changes (even though there are plenty of nightly specials), and that’s for a good reason: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The recent arrival of a full liquor license is just icing on the cake.
9) Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder, Colo.
In the Friuli region of northeastern Italy, a frasca is a roadside farm restaurant, serving simple regional food. Frasca Food and Wine captures the spirit of these places while also championing the vast diversity of Colorado’s unique culinary resources. Owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have created a warm and inviting space that can accommodate a casual, impromptu dinner or an evening of fine dining, and offer a unique menu that includes salumi and cheeses along with pastas like stuffed casoncelli and entrées like rabbit and veal top round with polenta and romanesco. Whatever you do, don’t miss the frico caldo, a crispy pancake of potatoes, onions, and Piave cheese — a Friulian specialty.
8) Quince, San Francisco
Quince offers a refined and modern Italian-inspired menu. Located in a historic building in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood, the Michelin-starred restaurant is both charming and elegant. Chef and owner Michael Tusk, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific in 2011, creates a dining experience rooted in his relationships with a tightly knit network of only the best Northern Californian food purveyors. Typical dishes include risotto with Dungeness crab, Brussels sprouts, and Kaffir lime, and duck for two with turnip, bergamot, and wildflower honey. The restaurant’s stylish and intimate setting provides the backdrop for either a prix fixe four-course dinner or a seasonally inspired tasting menu.
7) Spiaggia, Chicago
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White brought us the most recent wave of fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia. Taking a cue from its name, which means "beach" in Italian, the food and décor at the restaurant are inspired by the coast. Mantuano has won countless accolades for his accomplishments here, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest in 2005. He and the restaurant’s executive chef, Sarah Grueneberg, continue to delight diners with such fare as Pugliese burrata with golden Osetra caviar and potato crisps, squid ink spaghetti with Maine lobster and toasted breadcrumbs, and wood-roasted steelhead trout with honey mussels, black garlic, butter-roasted turnips, and Meyer lemon.
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s interview with chef Tony Mantuano on Spiaggia's 30th anniversary and what's next.
6) Torrisi Italian Specialties, New York City
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone saved turkey from Thanksgiving (is theirs the best turkey sandwich in America?) and made everyone rethink New York's Little Italy (and Italian-American food in general) when they launched their shoebox of a shop on Mulberry Street in 2010. The chefs recognized the untapped potential of Italian-American cuisine, showing that with love for the genre and attention to detail, it has nothing to do with the foil baking pans filled with chicken Francese and the plates of criminally congealed Marsala sauces peddled to tourists in Little Italy. (Sheep's milk gnocchi with chestnut ragù or halibut Francese with potatoes and bergamot, anyone?) Their meteoric rise on the New York City dining scene landed them Best New Chef accolades from Food & Wine last year. The fact that their tasting menu price has gone from $45 to $75 and the issue of their potentially indelicate superimposition of the name of their newest hot spot restaurant — Carbone — over the iconic West Village Rocco sign that hung outside the previous tenant's door forever might put off some of Torrisi's original champions. And expansions like Parm (their next-door place with its more casual à la carte menu), their (now-closed) Yankee Stadium kiosk, and plans for more restaurants show a healthy dose of ambition — but hey, the food’s still great and when it comes to empire-building, hey, whatsamattawiddat?
5) Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, New York City
For almost 20 years, Il Buco has been one of New York City's most appealing Italian restaurants, serving unpretentious, savory food based on first-rate American and Italian ingredients. Almost two years ago, the proprietors opened a more casual sister restaurant — the name means something like "food shop and wine bar" — and it's so lively, with such vivid, hearty food, that it has all but overshadowed the original. Chef Justin Smillie, who refined his craft at Barbuto, among other places, fries baby artichokes and grills quail with the best of them, makes great pastas in-house (lasagnette with ragù Bolognese, plump Neapolitan-style schialatelli with octopus and spicy tomato sauce), and delights diners with everything from short rib and gorgonzola panini at lunchtime to razor clam ceviche with hearts of palm and spit-roasted rabbit with endive and Taggiasca olives at night.
4) Vetri, Philadelphia
In this little jewel box of a place, chef Marc Vetri offers diners sophisticated, hand-crafted Italian and Italianate specialties (saffron malloreddus with bone marrow and fennel, almond tortellini with white truffle, roasted baby goat with stone-milled polenta) served with precision and grace. No less an authority than Mario Batali has hailed the place as "possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast."
3) Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America, teams up herewith New York-based Italian-food moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in this lively urban restaurant, complete with a mozzarella bar, unusual pasta (calf’s brain ravioli, spaghetti with marinated white anchovies), and main dishes ranging from sea trout with lentils to sweetbreads piccata. In 2012, executive chef Matt Molina won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific.
2) Del Posto, New York City
Having earned a coveted four-star rating in The New York Times (the first Italian restaurant to do so since 1974), Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali's temple of contemporary Italian fine dining ranks in a class of its own. In a space that is both luxurious and remarkably comfortable, executive chef Mark Ladner, with the help of pastry chef Brooks Headley, serves dishes that build on the classics with a true innovative spirit, and get this — they’ve created a database of videos showing how to make dishes at home. Specialties include "yesterday's 100-layer lasagna," native swordfish involtini with smoky cabbage and Arborio rice salad in Barolo sauce, and Sardinian lamb with Roman artichokes and saffron potatoes. And while the menu is quite expensive, their $39 prix fixe lunch menu is nothing short of a steal.
1) Babbo, New York City
As Mario Batali continues his reign atop the American culinary landscape, his flagship restaurant, Babbo, remains a New York essential, and the best Italian restaurant in America. What can you say about this place that hasn't already been said? The pasta! That pork chop! Mario Batali is a genius! Rock music in a fine dining restaurant? Brilliant! But there’s just something about Babbo, from the always-packed bar area to the knowledgeable confidence of the wait staff, from the bright and airy upstairs to the romantic main level, from the perfectly composed plates to the groan-inducing pastas, that makes a meal at Babbo unlike any you’ll have anywhere else. At this longtime darling of the critics, after almost 15 years, you're still at the mercy of the reservation gods if you want to get in (but we’ve had some last-minute luck by closely monitoring their Twitter feed). Buona fortuna!
Click here to watch the Daily Meal’s interview with Mario Batali on China, Eataly and having a day job.