America's 40 Best Italian Restaurants
April 14, 2014
#40 Motorino, New York City
Some spaces are cursed. Others? Blessed. When Anthony Mangieri shuttered Una Pizza Napoletana at 349 East 12th St. and headed west, Mathieu Palombino took over the lease, renamed the space Motorino, and the East Village pizza scene hardly skipped a beat. Motorino offers a handful of spirited pies, including one with cherry stone clams; another with stracciatella, raw basil, and Gaeta olives; and the cremini mushroom with fior di latte, sweet sausage, and garlic. But contrary to every last fiber of childhood memory you hold dear, the move is the Brussels sprouts pie (fior di latte, garlic, Pecorino, smoked pancetta, and olive oil), something both Hong Kong natives and Brooklynites can now attest to since Palombino opened (and moved and reopened) his Asian and Williamsburg outposts in 2013.
#39 Una Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco
When Anthony Mangieri, pizzaiolo for the East Village’s Una Pizza Napoletana, closed in 2009 "to make a change," move west, and open somewhere he could get "a chance to use his outrigger canoe and mountain bike more often," it was the ultimate insult to New Yorkers. You're taking one of the city's favorite Neapolitan pizzerias, defecting to a temperate climate, to people who denigrate New York's Mexican food? So you can canoe and mountain bike? Traitor! Good for Mangieri, and good for San Franciscans who, with Una Pizza Napoletana, inherited one of the country's best Neapolitan pies (if only Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. until they're "out of dough").
A thin crust with chewy cornicione, a sauce that's tart and alive, an appropriate ratio of cheese... you could almost imagine yourself at the pantheon to pizza in Naples Da Michele, a place where the pizza is poetry and pizza poetry is on the wall. Mangieri harkens that same ethos on his website — check out the pizza poem "Napoli" — and delivers the edible version to his patrons. There are only five pies, all $25 (a $5 hike since last year), plus a special Saturday-only pie, the Apollonia, made with eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, salami, extra-virgin olive oil, basil, garlic, sea salt, and black pepper. But when you’re this close to godliness, you don’t need extras. Keep it simple with the margherita (San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil ,fresh basil, sea salt, tomato sauce) and know the good.
#38 Di Fara, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York and Sicilian-style pizza Wednesday through Sunday (noon to 4:30 p.m., and from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines, and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice. Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods where the underside of the pizza can trend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza. If you want to understand why before visiting, watch the great video about Di Fara called, The Best Thing I Ever Done. You can’t go wrong with the classic round or square cheese pie (topped with oil-marinated hot peppers, which you can ladle on at the counter if you elbow in), but the menu’s signature is the Di Fara Classic Pie: mozzarella, Parmesan, plum tomato sauce, basil, sausage, peppers, mushroom, onion, and of course, a drizzle of olive oil by Dom.
#37 Frank Pepe, New Haven, Conn.
If you want to discuss the loaded topic of America's best pizza with any authority, you have to make a pilgrimage to this legendary New Haven pizzeria. Frank Pepe opened his doors in Wooster Square in New Haven, Conn., in 1925, offering classic Napoletana-style pizza. After immigrating to the United States in 1909 at the age of 16 from Italy, Pepe took odd jobs before opening his restaurant (now called "The Spot" next door to the larger operation). Since its conception, Pepe’s has opened an additional seven locations.
What should you order at this checklist destination? Two words: clam pie ("No muzz!"). This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe's is the best of them all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams, an intense dose of garlic, olive oil, oregano, and grated Parmesan atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. Just expect to wait in line if you get there after 11:30 a.m. on a weekend.
#36 Flour + Water, San Francisco
Although this San Francisco restaurant claims to specialize in house-made pastas, their pizza is formidable. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the thin-crust pizza at Flour + Water blends Old World tradition with modern refinement, according to chef and co-owner Thomas McNaughton. Pizza toppings vary depending on what’s in season, making each dining experience unique, but Flour + Water’s textbook Margherita is amazing. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, fior di latte, and extra-virgin olive oil… if only the simplicity implied by the restaurant’s name could be duplicated in pizzerias across the country.
#35 Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Memphis, Tenn.
Lifelong friends Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman created Italian/Southern U.S. fusion heaven when they opened Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in a 1940s ranch-style house off Poplar Avenue east of midtown Memphis with some 54 seats, in late 2008. The two chefs credit their grandmothers Catherine Chiozza and Mary Spinosa for their inspiration, but have plenty of culinary pedigree beyond these maternal instrumental familial food memories, old-style Italian recipes, and traditions (there's a vegetable and herb garden for the restaurant too). You'll want to try the veal breast with celery root, parsnips, turnips, carrots, spinach soubise, and truffle; maw maw's ravioli with meat gravy; and the veal agnolotti with tomato braise and lardo. Of course, if you're keen on the chefs' Italian spin but game for something even less purist, you can also cross the street and head over to Hog & Hominy for tremendous Neapolitan-style pizzas, beef and cheddar dog on pretzel bun, peanut agrodulce and jalapeño-cilantro vinaigrette sweetbreads, and during lunch, try the John T Burger with pickled lettuce, American cheese, onion, and mustard, one of the best burgers around.
#34 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 $23.
#33 Luca D’Italia, Denver
“Strictly Italian spoken here,” notes the Luca D’Italia website. “Chefs Frank Bonanno and Eric Cimino execute Sicilian-style meats that are cured in-house; pastas, breads and cheeses made fresh daily, and recipes that change monthly to reflect the finest seasonal ingredients.” This spot in Central Denver named for Bonanno’s son pays homage to the food the chef grew up eating in his mother’s kitchen in New Jersey. Pastas are a small course, just a part of the multi-course experience the chef intends. A meal can include crispy sweetbreads with braised octopus, smoked steelhead crudo with Meyer lemon, tagliatelle fra diavolo, and a tasting of wild boar with mustard spuma. But if you only have time for one thing, be sure not to miss the pappardelle Bolognese.
#32 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 $50 per person, they’ll "Do It Fancy," preparing a four-course family-style meal for your table, and they feel so strongly that you should do this, they've said so right there on the menu in the past: "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, or 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 $50, and glad that you put it in the kitchen’s hands.
#31 Carnevino, Las Vegas
Powerhouse restaurant duo Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich + steak + Vegas = greatness. CarneVino, their temple to all things beef in The Palazzo Hotel & Casino, pulls out all the stops, aging their beef for 30 to 60 days (and in some cases, more than a year — their "BBLBeef" is hand-selected and aged by Adam Perry Lang, and rubbed with sea salt, black pepper, and fresh rosemary "to get a delicious and slightly-charred crust" — and these steaks can compete with any other offering, anywhere. This "super prime" beef is developed especially for Batali and Bastianich’s restaurant group, and — oh, yeah — this is a Batali restaurant after all, so the pastas and other menu items certainly don’t get short shrift.
#30 Palena Café, Washington, D.C.
Palena is known as much for the cheeseburger on the café menu as for the more elegant, seasonally driven food that is served in the dining room. After a stint as the White House chef, it was an interesting move for chef-restaurateur Frank Ruta to set his restaurant (named for a small town in the Provence of Chieti in Italy's Abruzzo region, his mother's home town) in Cleveland Park, far away from the glitzy, lobbyist-packed K Street dining scene. Though the restaurant’s dining room offers sophisticated menu items like a guinea hen ballotine, the café really shines as a low-key neighborhood spot, turning out a simple roast chicken from the wood-fired oven and homey pasta dishes like spaghetti with cauliflower, pine nuts, and egg.
#29 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 include 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.
#28 Nostrana, Portland, Ore.
Nostrana is often cited as serving one of Portland’s most authentic Neapolitan pies, and for good reason. The blistered cornicione and thin crust provide scrumptious, beautiful canvases for the hand-made mozzarella the restaurant makes daily. There are eight pies on the menu including standouts like the diavola (spicy sausage, mozzarella, provolone, tomato, and Mama Lil’s peppers), alla fiamma (tomato, red onion, Mama Lil’s peppers, wild oregano, spicy oil, and black olives), the tricolore rapini (smoked provolone, ricotta, Mama Lil’s peppers, red onion, garlic, and lemon), and a vongole bianco with Manila clams and gremolata that defies New Haven tradition by featuring smoked provolone and mozzarella. No matter which pie you order, it’s going to be "served uncut, as is the traditional Italian style.” But chef Cathy Whims’ Buckman restaurant isn’t just about pizza. The delicious antipasti includes fried oysters with fennel pollen and bison polpettone with slow-roasted tomato and anchovy. Pastas like strozzapretti with wild nettle and almond pesto, and capellini with tomato butter sauce, and mains like the bistecca alla Fiorentina and pork shoulder are going to make it difficult to order without seeming like a pig. Throw self-consciousness aside.
#27 Dan Tana's, Los Angeles
With menu items like “penne arabiata a la Michael Kane,” “fettucini Alfredo a la Mark Singer,” “cannelloni a la Constantino,” “steamed clams a la Rob Lee,” and “Tana salad a la Nicky Hilton” you kind of get an idea of the scene at Dan Tana’s, Los Angeles’ old-school, red sauce institution. This West Hollywood joint owned by Yugoslav-American restaurateur and former professional footballer Dan Tana may not be as exclusive, but this is Hollywood’s version of New York City’s Rao’s, another restaurant known more for lore than linguini. And that’s okay, because even as the upscale Italian-American food movement continues to cross the country, there’s something special about treasures like this, especially as it approaches its 50th anniversary this year. So step out of the bright lights of Hollywood and sit down at a table or corner booth in the dimly-lit, seemingly-windowless, red-walled dining room, take a look around for Nicky and Michael, and enjoy the ride. Just keep in mind you’re more likely to see bad combovers than big celebrities.
#26 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 crudita di pesce: (Italian “Suchi” marinated with citrus and colatura di alici), the lasagne della nonna (grandmother's lasagna) with mushroom and duck ragù, or the veal ossobuco with risotto Milanese? The wine list is one of the largest and richest in America, and service is perfect.
#25 Osteria, Philadelphia
The more casual, trattoria-like offshoot of Vetri, Osteria is a big, lively place where the pizzas are terrific (try the octopus and smoked mozzarella) and the cooking is homey but first-rate, from veal liver ravioli with figs to rabbit stewed with pancetta over intensely flavored polenta.
#24 Il Posto, Denver
Il Posto means, “The Place” in Italian, and chef and owner Andrea Frizzi has largely backed up his contention that his breezy spot in City Park West is hot ― it’s routinely mentioned as one of the city’s best Italian restaurants for years now. Frizzi, originally from Milan, imports many Italian ingredients, incorporating them into a seasonal menu that changes on the chalkboard each day — “Cooking in the present,” he calls it. “It can be a rainy day, sunny and dry, or windy, or snowing — we as people react differently with the weather, so too with food.” Ah, Italians… poetry. And he may be right, but most don’t react differently to Frizzi’s food, especially his risotto, so don’t miss it.
#23 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 six varieties. There’s a full "mozzarella bar" with heirloom tomatoes and basil, prosciutto and green papaya, beef carpaccio and garlic chips, king crab, and a warm burrata with leek custard in pastry (just opt for the mozzarella tasting, you know you want to). Spaghetti comes topped with cracklings and hot pepper and pizza is topped with robiola, peppadwes, white clam, black truffle, and lobster. Entrees include very crisp, slow-cooked half duck, sugarcane and spiced lamb sirloin, and spring's fresh-caught Canadian lobster with bourbon. 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.
#22 Bistro don Giovanni, Napa Valley, Calif.
Usually when you talk about the warmth and hospitality of a restaurant, you’re talking about the service, a smile from a waiter, the right thing said at the right time with the perfect lilting tone, and obviously how the food tastes and makes you feel. And you get all of that at Bistro don Giovanni in Napa Valley. At Bistro don Giovanni, there is also the physical warmth of fireside dining — there are two traditional wood-burning fireplaces, one in the enclosed terrace and one in the main dining room. But the heart of the restaurant, the true warmth emanating from Bistro don Giovanni, which has been delighting visitors for 20 years, has always come from co-owners Donna and Giovanni Scala. Donna’s tragic death of a brain tumor this year leaves a void (she ran the kitchen, he runs the front of house), but her spirit lives on at the restaurant. The menu features simple pizzas and pastas, sustainably-farmed local fruits, vegetables, and organi
#21 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, and more. Like scampi vivi more: "the single best live langoustines on the planet" (they better be when they start at $30 each)Of course, there's good meat and poultry and plenty of fantasic pasta too, among them sheep's milk ricotta ravioli, handmade ribbon pasta, potato gnocchi, and classic Piemontese meat ravioli.
#20 Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, Ariz.
"There’s no mystery to my pizza," Bronx native Chris Bianco was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make at Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake, and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple.''
Try telling that to the legions of pizza pilgrims who have made trip to the storied Phoenix pizza spot he opened more than 20 years ago. The restaurant serves not only addictive thin-crust pizzas but also fantastic antipasto (involving wood-oven-roasted vegetables), perfect salads, and homemade country bread. The wait, once routinely noted as one of the worst for food in the country, has been improved by Pizzeria Bianco opening for lunch, and the opening of Trattoria Bianco, the pizza prince of Arizona’s Italian restaurant in the historic Town & Country Shopping Center (about 10 minutes from the original). This is another case where any pie will likely be better than most you’ve had in your life (try the Rosa with red onions and pistachios!), but the signature Marinara will recalibrate your pizza baseline forever: tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic (no cheese).
#19 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 on its reputation. 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.
#18 Cafe Juanita, Kirkland, Wash.
Located in a mid-century house near the Juanita Beach Park in Kirkland, chef-owner and 2008 Best Chef Northwest James Beard award-winner Holly Smith’s neighborhood spot Cafe Juanita focuses on Northern Italian cuisine. The menu changes frequently, “but always includes an eclectic mix of meats and seafood, illustrating the commitment to fresh, bold dishes that most often utilize organic products.” Goat cheese gnocchi with ramps, lamb tongue with walnut aigrelette, local pheasant egg with white sturgeon caviar, rabbit served with house-made pancetta, these are just some of the delicious items you’ll find on menu at this 30-seat restaurant that from the outside at least, more resembles someone’s home.
#17 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 the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Chris Marchino took over for longtime executive chef Sarah Grueneberg last year and hasn't skipped a beat, continuing 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.
The restaurant is currently undergoing a massive redesign in honor of its 30th anniversary, and when completed in late spring there will be a newly designed dining room, a new location for the bar, and a new lounge area with its own menu.
Click here to watch The Daily Meal’s interview with chef Tony Mantuano on Spiaggia's 30th anniversary and what's next.
#16 Blanca, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Say Roberta's is in the new class of restaurants that has fanned the flames of the Brooklyn vs. Manhattan debate, call it a great pizza joint, recall it as a frontrunner of the city's rooftop garden movement, and mention that Carlo Mirarchi was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine, and you'd still be selling it short. Roberta's is in Bushwick, six stops out of Manhattan on the L, and it's one of the city's best restaurants. Roberta’s Neapolitan pies are at the high end of the debate about which are the city's best, and pizza, tremendous pastas (cavatelli with oxtail, horseradish, and celery), and magnificently-prepared mains like wagyu flank steak with freekah and salsa verde aren’t even the point. You’re going to want to score one of the 12 seats at Blanca, the hard-to-reserve, 25-course (or more) tasting menu spot squirreled away in a separate building behind the complex’s main dining room. The cuisine? It’s an indulgent turn through Mirarchi’s culinary mind. At turns a bite of raw fish will tempt you to compare to the best bite of omakase you’ve ever had, a thin slice of beautifully-marbled, duck egg yolk-dressed beef carpaccio that looks like it’s from your favorite steakhouse, and in between incredibly delicious pasta courses.
#15 Chi Spacca, Los Angeles
Let’s get two things out of the way off the bat. There are two dishes on the menu that are each nearly $200 and take nearly an hour to prepare: the 42-ounce bistecca Fiorentina ($175), and the 50-ounce costata alla Fiorentina ($210). These two dishes pretty much best summarize chef Chad Colby’s 30-seat, dinner-only restaurant Chi Spacca. This Osteria Mozza offshoot overseen by Nancy Silverton is not cheap, and the meat (these two spectacular and talked-about dishes in particular), is what you’re here for. You’ll want to order the baked shell beans, the cured-meat board, the testa frittata, and the “tomahawk” pork chop too, so find three other people to share them with you, dig in, and if they’re not great eaters, well, you’re set for tomorrow night when you’ll finally be hungry again.
#14 Cotogna, San Francisco
Chef Michael Tusk’s Quince offers a refined, modern Italian and French-inspired menu. But Quince’s adjoining Jackson Square sister restaurant Cotogna just shows another great side of the same chef, something mirrored in the spot’s name. Cotogna, which means “quince” in Italian, is a casual spot that harbors a more rustic menu featuring spit-roasted and grilled fish and meats, homemade pastas, and wood-oven pizzas that change daily. Don’t miss pastas like English pea tortelli; gnocchi with white, purple, and green asparagus; garganelli alla Bolognese, saffron pappardelle with hand-cut lamb sugo, and perhaps most important, the raviolo di ricotta with fresh farm egg and brown butter. Notable also are the Sunday Suppers, a four-course $55 menu that changes every week (with special menus for holidays), and the fact that you can even brown bag it — pick up your “BB sandwich” made with housemade bread (think fior di latte, asparagus, and bacon; muffuletta; and fried chicken and buttermilk dressing on brioche) and served with a side salad and a freshly baked cookie starting at 11:30 a.m. ($12).
#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 13 pizzas, including ones topped with Gorgonzola, apple, speck, pecans, roast pork shoulder, fennel sausage, and cotechino. There’s also a wide variety of house-cured meats, pastas including stracci with oxtail and fried chicken livers, and entrées that include a wood-oven goat shakshouka-style with a yard egg and tomato sauce and crispy chicken mostarda with creamy polenta and rosemary. Make sure you save room for desserts like banana cake with bananas, crema cotta mousse, and peanut brittle..
#12 Al Forno, Providence, R.I.
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. They also, though, aim the culinary spotlight on Rhode Island's defining vegetables — corn, squash, beans, and tomatoes — prepared simply, with the authentic Italian panache one would expect of multiple James Beard honorees.
#11 Torrisi, New York
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone saved turkey from Thanksgiving 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. Their meteoric rise landed them Best New Chef accolades from Food & Wine in 2012.
The proposition that skyrocketed Torrisi Italian Specialties to prominence however — an innovative and reasonably-priced tasting menu — has undergone a gradual transition seemingly as inevitable as its restaurant group's expansion (a spot under the High Line, a restaurant in the Ludlow Hotel, and new Parms in Williamsburg, Battery Park City, and the Upper West Side). It went from $45 to $75, then to $100 last September, with a more elaborate (and celebrated) 16-course $175 extended tasting menu now available too. It doesn't seem to have put off Torrisi's champions, but Major Food Group's treatment of critics has raised a few eyebrows (within months they turned away Guardian UK's restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin and kicked New York Magazine critic Adam Platt out of ZZ's Clam Bar).
Still, if the food’s great, when it comes to empire-building and demonstrating that you're not going to let yourself be defined by the press (unless it's good), hey, whatsamattawiddat?
#10 Carbone, New York
Menus wider than your chest, the tile floor from “The Godfather,” waiters...er, "captains" hired for pure theater, and a vision for the upscaling of all of New York City's greatest Italian-American classic restaurants and their greatest hits as well as a commendable devotion to centralizing their cultures and atmospheric traditions, Carbone is a restaurant that New York City, with all its storied tradition of great Italian culture (think Mama Leone, Il Mulino, and Don Pepe), has been waiting for for decades. It just didn't know it.
At this joint venture between chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone and their partner and talented restaurateur Jeff Zalaznick, Carbone arguably most represents the trio as a whole (he joined after they launched Torrisi, at least publicly). Pastas thrill. Consider the linguine vongole, the oxtail cavatelli, and one of the best renditions of rigatoni vodka you can imagine (spicy too!). Lobster fra diavolo and lobster Cantonese are terribly fun, and you have to appreciate a place that takes seriously the idea of taking Italian-American classics like chicken scarpariello and parm to the next level. And the meal ends with a modern-art carrot cake and homemade limoncello, nice touches, yes? But the prices! Forgive the literary crutch, but Mamma mia! A $54 veal parm that serves one? Is that Italian?
#9 Al Di La, 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 despite plenty of nightly specials, and that’s for a good reason: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
#8 Vetri, Philadelphia
In this little jewel box of a place which celebrated 15 years this past fall, chef Marc Vetri offers diners sophisticated, hand-crafted Italian and Italianate specialties off of a tasting menu (pappardelle with cockles and tardive, almond tortellini with white truffle, roasted capretto with stone milled polenta, and pistachio flan for dessert), served with precision and grace, as well as a wine cellar of over 2,500 wine bottles to choose from. Mario Batali has hailed the place as "possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast." In September, the Vetri family opened up Pizzeria Vetri nearby and Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan called their pizza “the morsel of the year.”
#7 Quince, San Francisco
Quince offers a refined, modern Italian and French-inspired menu. Located in a historic brick and timber building dating back to 1907 in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood, the Michelin-starred restaurant is both charming and elegant. Chef and owner Michael Tusk, who won the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Pacific, creates a dining experience rooted in his relationships with a tightly knit network of only the best Northern Californian food purveyors. Typical dishes include black cod, ibérico ham, Dirty Girl Farm leeks, and celeriac. After stints at elBulli and The Fat Duck, executive pastry chefs Alen Ramos and Carolyn Nugent came to Quince. Their bread and pastry programs helped contribute to the restaurant’s success and its achievement of three Michelin stars. Quince’s stylish, intimate setting provides the backdrop for either a prix fixe four-course dinner or a seasonally inspired tasting menu.
#6 Marea, New York
When it opened, Marea was immediately acclaimed as one of the most original and consistently wonderful upscale Manhattan restaurants in recent memory. This very handsome establishment on Central Park South, in a sunny dining room that long housed San Domenico, specializes in exquisitely fresh fish and shellfish in Italian-inspired preparations by skilled chef and restaurateur Michael White. Try the crostini with lardo and sea urchin which caused waves of buzz at the time and has since become one of the city’s "checklist" dishes, or the fusilli with octopus and bone marrow.
#5 ll Buco Alimentari & Vineria, New York
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. In late 2011, the proprietors opened this more casual sister restaurant — a loose translation of Alimentari & Vineria is "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 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 entrées like Broken Arrow Ranch quail, kabocha squash, farro, and crimini mushroom. Whatever you do, don’t miss the frico caldo, a crispy pancake of potatoes, onions, and Piave cheese — a Friulian specialty.
#3 Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Nancy Silverton, whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America, teams up here with 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 grilled quail wrapped in pancetta to duck al mattone.
#2 Babbo, New York, N.Y.
Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant is a testament to his undying mission of keeping the food in his New York restaurants as close to Italy as possible. Whatever specialty ingredients aren’t imported from Italy are made at Babbo “as an Italian might in the Mid-Atlantic/Hudson region.” Although it’s difficult to get in without a reservation, it’s not utterly impossible. Arrive hungry, because the seven-course pasta menu is not for the faint of heart. Explore Italy by land and sea with dishes like grilled octopus in spicy limoncello vinaigrette, sea scallops, pig foot ‘Milanese,’ warm tripe ‘alla Parmigiana,’ and beef cheek ravioli.
#1 Del Posto, New York
Del Posto is the result of a collaboration between Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali. With these three big names banding together, the result is “the ultimate expression of what an Italian restaurant should be.” As a relative newcomer to the fine dining scene, Del Posto opened in 2010 in the Meatpacking District, and received a coveted four-star review from The New York Times, the first Italian restaurant to do so in nearly four decades. Enjoy modern gourmet twists on Italian classics like truffled carne cruda with grana padano & watercress buds, ricotta and egg yolk gnudi with black truffle, and the restaurant's famous 100-layer lasagna (less expensive and a bit easier to experience during lunch), before ending your meal with a chocolate ricotta tortina.