The Italian restaurant in America has changed in style probably more than any other genre of restaurant over the past several decades. Even as recently as 50 years ago, the term "Italian restaurant" conjured images of red and white checkered tablecloths, carafes of middling chianti, and a red sauce-heavy menu with classics like chicken Parmigiana that were more Italian-American than authentic Italian.
Then something interesting happened: People got bored, and a new breed of Italian restaurant came onto the scene, able to rival even the highest-end French dining rooms. From a playful Boston landmark with seven varieties of homemade bread to a Philadelphia institution where the chef customizes a menu for each guest, we’ve rounded up the 50 best Italian restaurants in America.
So what were our classifications for an "Italian restaurant," exactly?
A prevalence of Italian or Italian-inspired dishes on the menu, of course. We were OK with pizzerias; we were also OK with restaurants that are Italian-inspired, like San Francisco’s Quince. A great Italian restaurant has many of the same standards that make any restaurant great: impeccable, un-snooty service; high-quality food sourced from the finest purveyors; creative-yet-classic preparation and craftsmanship; and an overall experience that leaves you happy and content in the fact that you just ate a world-class meal.
To assemble this ranking, we looked at restaurants that made it to our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in America, which we release early every year. The steps we took to build that ranking were as thorough and comprehensive as possible: We recruited an illustrious panel of judges that included some of the country’s top food writers, critics, and bloggers to submit their suggestions for the country’s best restaurants, which we supplemented with our own choices, including previous years’ rankings as well as lauded newcomers.
This list of hundreds of restaurants was then built into a survey that was sent out to more than 100 panelists, who voted for their favorites. The final ranking included a significant number of Italian restaurants, and to create this list we supplemented the Italian restaurants that made it into our final list of 101 with those that came in as runners-up and those that were featured on this year's list of the country's 101 best casual restaurants — all places worthy of renown.
In the end, our ranking runs the gamut from old-school neighborhood joints with decades of history to the fine dining institutions helmed by the likes of Marc Vetri and Mario Batali, from red sauce to sea urchin and everywhere in-between. Read on for our third-annual ranking of America’s best Italian restaurants.
1. Del Posto – New York City
Del Posto is the result of a collaboration between Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich, and Mario Batali. With these three big names banding together and partner and executive chef Mark Ladner at the helm, the result may be (as Del Posto's website proclaims) “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 New York's 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. Its $49 three-course lunch prix fixe is one of the city’s best restaurant deals (period), but if you arrive for dinner you’ll have your choice of a $149 five-course menu or a $179 eight-course Captain’s Menu, featuring dishes like truffled beef carne crudo, linguine with langostines, slow-roasted Abruzzese-spices lamb, and veal alla santimbocca. The restaurant also offers one of the country’s best vegan and gluten-free tasting menus, and every pasta dish can also be prepared with gluten-free pastas.
2. Vetri, Philadelphia
In this little jewel box of a place, now nearly 20 years old, chef Marc Vetri offers diners sophisticated, hand-crafted Italian and Italianate specialties, served only in the form of six-course, $155 tasting menus. Available items are listed under Antipasti, Pasta, Secondi, and Dolce; new chef Joey Delago will personalize the menu to your taste. You might end up with, for instance, foie gras with carrot and malt syrup, fettucine with octopus ragu, dry aged ribeye, and hazelnut flan for dessert. All is served with precision and grace, and there is a wine cellar of more than 2,500 bottles to choose from. Mario Batali has hailed Vetri as "possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast."
3. Babbo, New York City
As Mario Batali continues his reign atop the American culinary landscape, his flagship restaurant, Babbo, remains a New York essential. What can you say about it that hasn't been said? The pasta! That pork chop! Mario Batali is a genius! Well, sure, but the restaurant is a testament to his undying mission of keeping the food as close to Italy as possible. Whatever specialty ingredients aren’t imported from there are made at Babbo “as an Italian might in the Mid-Atlantic/Hudson region.” Although Babbo is nearly 20 years old (it opened in 1998), it’s still difficult to get a table. Not a surprise considering it would essentially be a four-star restaurant if former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni had liked Led Zeppelin a little more. But it’s not utterly impossible, especially if you don’t mind sitting at the bar. Either way, you’re going to want to arrive hungry, because the seven-course pasta menu is not for the faint of heart. Must-order dishes? Considering that the menu has become its own greatest hits list, that’s a tough call. You can explore Italy by land and sea with things whole grilled branzino with saffron braised fennel or fennel-dusted sweetbreads with sweet and sour onions and duck bacon, but you’ll probably want to make sure you at least try the mint love letters with spicy lamb sausage; black spaghetti with rock shrimp, spicy salami Calabrese, and green chiles; and beef cheek ravioli.
4. 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 steelhead trout with watermelon radish, dill, and buckwheat; brodo with onion, black garlic, and rocket; and lasagnetta with guinea hen, Swiss chard, and wild mushroom. 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 a stunning 14-course, $220 tasting menu.
5. Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
(Osteria Mozza, B&B Hospitality Group)
Osteria Mozza is a really good restaurant. And no wonder, right? It only represents the teaming up of Nancy Silverton (whose La Brea Bakery changed the game for artisanal bread in America) and New York-based Italian-food moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in a lively L.A. setting. There’s a mozzarella bar with some dozen options; a menu that includes fantastic (and sometimes unusual) pasta, like goat cheese ravioli with "five lilies," meaning five members of the allium family; calf’s brain ravioli with butter and lemon; and squid ink chitarra with Dungeness crab and sea urchin; and main dishes ranging from grilled quail wrapped in pancetta with honey and sage to porcini-rubbed ribeye bistecca.
6. Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder
In the Friuli region of northeastern Italy, a frasca is a roadside farm restaurant, serving simple regional food. Frasca Food & Wine captures the spirit of these venues while also championing the vast diversity of Colorado’s unique culinary resources, and it very well might be the finest restaurant in all of Colorado. Owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have created a warm and inviting space that can accommodate an impromptu dinner or an evening of fine dining. They offer a unique menu that includes salumi and cheeses along with dishes including cured grouper cheek with ricotta and mint, rye flour gnocchi with pork ragu and cauliflower, and guinea fowl with farro and carrot. Just be sure that you don’t miss the frico caldo, a crispy pancake of potatoes, onions, and Piave cheese — a Friulian specialty.
7. Valentino, Santa Monica
For more than 40 years, Piero Selvaggio's Santa Monica landmark Valentino has set the standard for Italian fine dining in America. He served real Italian pastas and things like radicchio and balsamic vinegar when they were exotic 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 increasingly turning 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, a kind of anchovy syrup), 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.
8. chi SPACCA, Los Angeles
Chi Spacca (“he who cleaves” in Italian) heralds its Food & Wine description of being a “meat speakeasy” with good reason — it’s a great appellation. This, after all, is a Silverton-Batali-Bastianich restaurant where accompaniments like warm salted medjool dates and Puglia burrata and prosciutto are just sideshows for the rest of this meat-centric menu. Chef Ryan Denicola’s menu highlights a $220 50-ounce prime, dry-aged porterhouse bistecca Fiorentina and a 36-ounce, $150 prime, dry-aged bone-in New York costata alla Fiorentina. And according to the Los Angeles Times’ restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, the only reason why there isn’t an 80-ounce steak on the menu is “because it was pointed out that $350 was probably more than anybody was willing to spend on a piece of meat, no matter how spectacular, and that none of the tables in the restaurant seated enough people to actually finish the thing.” Despite all that, it would be unfair not to note that Chi Spacca isn’t about excess, but meat artistry. You could challenge yourself to discover someone more committed to the nuance and deliberation of charcuterie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many equals to Chi Spacca’s approach.
9. Carbone, New York City
(Carbone, Major Food Group)
Menus wider than your chest. The tile floor from The Godfather. Waiters... er, "captains" hired for pure theater. A vision for the upscaling of all of New York's greatest Italian-American restaurants and a devotion to centralizing their cultures and atmospheric conventions. Carbone is a restaurant that New York, with all its storied tradition of great Italian culture (think Mamma Leone, Il Mulino, and Don Pepe), has been waiting for for decades. It just didn't know it.
10. Spiaggia, Chicago
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White reimagined fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia (“beach” in Italian). Mantuano has won countless accolades, including the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest, and Spiaggia was named Best Italian Restaurant in Chicago by The Daily Meal in 2015. Reopening after a 2014 redesign (its first since 1999), the restaurant has 50 percent more seats with views, a new lounge, and a floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled wine room showcasing 1,700 of Spiaggia’s nearly 5,000 bottles. The new restaurant menu follows the traditional Italian courses of antipasto, pasta, secondi, and dessert, but with almost entirely new dishes (the potato gnocchi with ricotta did made the transition). One thing that hasn’t changed is Spiaggia’s ability to delight diners. If you can’t make up your mind on what to order, there’s a seven-course tasting menu for $95 and a new 13-course extravaganza for $160.
Check out the rest of top 50 best Italian restaurants in the country.
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