America’s Best Italian Restaurants

Frasca Food and WineFrasca Food and WineThe great American Italian restaurant 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 neighborhood trattoria in Brooklyn to a high-end restaurant in San Francisco with a tasting menu focused on the bounty of Northern California, we rounded up the best Italian restaurants in America.

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So what were our classifications for an "Italian restaurant," exactly? First, we decided that restaurants that specialized in pizza wouldn't be considered, which excluded legendary establishments like Frank Pepe's, Pizzeria Bianco, and Di Fara from this list. We were also OK with restaurants that are Italian-inspired, like San Francisco's Quince. With a Caprese salad and gnudi on the menu, there's no denying that Italian cuisine is a major, and consistent, influence. 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.

In order to assemble our ranking, we first 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, which included 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 our 174 panelists, who voted for their favorites. The final ranking included many 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 but are certainly still worthy of renown.

Without any further ado, we present our ranking of America's Best Italian Restaurants.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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!

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-Dan Myers, The Daily Meal