“Cucina povera” and “alta cucina” may be apples and oranges (or rather mele e arance), but we Americans adore them just the same—indeed more than any other foreign cuisine, according to recent reports. These 20 best Italian restaurants in America—which stretch from the best restaurants in Miami in the south right up to San Francisco’s best restaurants—exemplify the best of both traditions (and they’ve got the James Beard Foundation nods, Michelin stars and Food & Wine Best New Chef awards to prove it). For the country’s best pizza and pasta, paired with top fine wines and craft beers, these are the best Italian restaurants for some memorable, belt-loosening meals. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook
Best Italian restaurants in America
What can be said about Marc Vetri’s hall-of-fame flagship that hasn’t already been said? Well, at the time of this writing, the national restaurant industry was abuzz with the news that the illustrious chef-restaurateur had sold much of his empire to Urban Outfitters. So there’s that. But its cornerstone, Vetri, remains intact—and what a cornerstone it is. A stately yet intimate Washington Square West townhouse sets the stage for an eight-course meal that, being painstakingly tailored to each guest, is truly once-in-a-lifetime, ranging perhaps from a seasonal crudo and the renowned sweet-onion crepe with truffle fondue to a raviolo stuffed with squash confited in honey butter, salt-baked branzino, and pistachio flan or chocolate-polenta souffle. The caliber of the wine list goes without saying; rare beer pairings, however, are a revelation.
The Italian-American supper clubs immortalized in mob movies and sepia-toned photos were never as dreamy as they seemed. The young guns behind Carbone, though, have moved beyond sentimentality in their homage to these restaurants by flipping the whole genre onto its head. The enormous menu reads like an encyclopedia of red-checkered classics. But co-chefs Torrisi and Carbone have made such dramatic improvements, you’ll barely recognize anything.
The mix of edgy and earthy, slick and sculptural elements that distinguish the posh setting double as a clue to the food at Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s celebration station in Penn Quarter: If lavish ingredients, haute techniques and artistic plating give Fiola a rarified air, the kitchen’s thoughtfulness and generosity ground it, from conception to execution. Take pine-smoked venison cacciatore in juniper jus with pancetta, wild huckleberries and parsnip crema, or chestnut mousse with aerated brioche, Calvados gelato and apple butter. Elaborate as these dishes sound, they amount to comfort food, and the same goes for signatures like the lobster ravioli, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop and pistachio souffle. Granted, the 66-page wine list is rather a luxury—but the chance to eavesdrop among power players counts as a freebie.
With four-star ambitions and prices to match, Mario Batali’s cavernous restaurant has become nothing less than the city’s top destination for refined, upscale Italian cuisine. The clubby dining room, serenaded nightly by a twinkling pianist on a grand piano, feels like the lobby of a very opulent grand hotel. The most showstopping dishes, intended for sharing, include hunks of lamb and veal and pitch-perfect risotto for two. The all-Italian wine list is suitably encyclopedic.
The spirit of both Northern California and Italy shine through in this small, lively dining space. SPQR (an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus) has hit new heights under chef Matthew Accarrino, garnering a Michelin star and several James Beard nominations. His menu reflects a philosophy that is at once modern and traditional, with every detail of texture, flavor and presentation bearing a personal stamp. Raves are rightly earned for antipasti such as caramelized sweet onion panna cotta with sturgeon bacon and accarrino caviar and for any of his handmade pastas (the Meyer lemon fettuccini in an albalone alfredo will bowl you over). Pair them with Italian wines from owner/sommelier Shelley Lindgren’s spectacular list and it’ll be an evening to remember.
Frasca Food and Wine; Boulder, CO
With two James Beard Awards between them (among countless other major accolades), Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson have made nothing but good on the promise of their extraordinary early careers since opening this world-class tribute to the kitchens and vineyards of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in 2004. In Frasca’s quietly elegant, softly lit Pearl Street storefront, the French Laundry alums present ever-changing tasting menus whose minimalist cast belies the boldness of the unusual pastas and proteins at their heart—think rabbit-stuffed casonsei or roast guinea fowl—bookended by exquisite salumi platters and sophisticated, often savory-laced desserts (including handmade chocolates). It’s all paired with strange and precious gems from Stuckey’s treasure trove of a wine cellar by a staff famed far beyond the Rockies for its caring yet crisp professionalism.Photograph: Courtesy Frasca Food and Wine
As this Italian hot spot is one of the most revered restaurants in LA, securing a table months in advance is a necessity. Chef Ori Menashe’s house-cured salumi is legendary, whether it’s part of a charcuterie board or atop a puffy pizza crust with mozzarella, black cabbage and fennel; housemade pastas come tangled together with lobster and sea urchin or tossed with lamb ragù and saffron. Menashe’s wife, Genevieve Gergis, is Bestia’s phenomenal pastry chef, and you’d be wise to order her chocolate budino tart to end an unforgettable meal.
Since opening its door in 2007, this Melrose and Highland dining destination has grown into an empire that spans a pizzeria, to-go counter and salumeria. The fine dining star continues to pack tables and churn out some of the city’s best pizza and pasta, but the heart of the restaurant is Mozza’s mozzarella bar. Over a dozen small plates showcase the handcrafted varieties from burrata dressed with tangy leek vinaigrette and mustard breadcrumbs to spongy bufala with basil pesto and caperberry relish. Dessert deserves a visit in its own right with an ever-changing selection of seasonal gelati and just fancy-enough torta della nonna, the envy of any grandmother.
Chef/owner Craig Stoll favors simplicity over whimsy and tradition over fashion. Yet his food is never ordinary: Fresh pasta, fish and braised meats find the perfect balance of flair and flavor. The menu changes daily, reflecting Stoll’s desire to stay on his toes. Recent standouts include garganelli with Liberty duck ragu and pancetta-wrapped rabbit saddle. Stoll’s casual Pizzeria Delfina is next door, serving some of the best thin-crust pizzas in town. The clam pie with cherrystone clams and hot peppers is a perennial favorite.
Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen; Memphis, TN
The seeds for Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen were planted in a sixth-grade classroom in Memphis, when Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman first met; its roots in both Italian-American and Southern home cooking hold firm. And it’s set in a renovated old home that, though polished, emanates familial warmth. But for all that personal history, this decades-in-the-making destination has blossomed under its chef-owners’ forward-thinking, outward-looking direction. Serrano chiles and shiitakes shake up bucatini in short rib ragù; osso buco goes global with ham hocks, persimmons and salsa verde; homey blueberry pie gets a kick from mascarpone and yuzu marmalade. The wine program follows suit, featuring emerging regions both Italian and international: Basilicata, Slovenia, Yolo County. (Granted, there’s always “Maw Maw’s ravioli” in meat gravy paired with Chianti for heirloom comfort.)