America's Best Italian Restaurants

What makes a great Italian restaurant anyway? For some it may be the antipasti. For others some combination of how good the wines and pastas are. Holding up one dish is dangerous. Octopus? Lasagna? Cacio e pepe?
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"A bottle of red, a bottle of white. It all depends upon your appetite," someone famous once crooned sometime, somewhere on the radio during more than seven minutes of piano-filled airtime. "I'll meet you any time you want in our Italian restaurant."

Brenda and Eddie may have parted the closest of friends, but America's love affair with Italian food will never end. And whereas the king and the queen of the prom's ideas of an Italian restaurant may conjure images of red- and white-checkered tablecloths, Chianti carafes, and red sauce-heavy plates, contemporary Americans' tastes are more complicated. They want great Neapolitan pies, veal parm, homemade pasta with uni or lardo, homemade charcuterie as good as it is in Italy, and even a touch of that Italian-American nostalgia everyone turned their noses down at for years ("A touch of house limoncello, if you please?"). This all makes crowning the country's best Italian restaurants a fairly complicated task, one made less constricting but no less challenging by doubling this year's list and setting out to declare America's 40 best Italian restaurants.

#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. Photo Credit: Noe DeWittClick Here to see more of America’s Best Italian Restaurants
#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. Photo Credit: Frasca Food and Wine
#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. Photo Credit: Kelly CampbellClick Here to see more of America’s Best Italian Restaurants
#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. Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell
#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. Photo Credit: Kelly CampbellClick Here to see more of America’s Best Italian Restaurants

What were the classifications for an "Italian restaurant," exactly? The panel was a little more stringent with last year's list of the 20 Best Italian Restaurants in America, perhaps a bit too much, deciding that restaurants that specialized in pizza wouldn't be considered. This excluded legendary establishments like Frank Pepe's, Pizzeria Bianco, and Di Fara, spots that seem worthwhile for their "Italianess," their approaches to both Italian D.O.C. and Italian-American pizza craftmanship. So you'll see those spots on this year's list. We've also always been okay 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.)

What makes a great Italian restaurant anyway? For some it may be the antipasti. For others some combination of how good the wines and pastas are. Holding up one dish is dangerous. Octopus? Lasagna? Cacio e pepe? Which one dish should be the barometer of a great Italian restaurant? You have to be wary of anyone who says that pasta with cheese and pepper is the ultimate test. They can talk nuance all they want, discuss complexity of simple flavors -- they're the ones who only ate overcooked spaghetti with butter when they were kids.

So what are the overall standards? 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. (Personally, if we're calling out one dish, I'd name manicotti -- when done right... well, perfetto.) 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 signficant 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 50 best casual restaurants -- all places worthy of renown.'

The resulting roundup of restaurants is impressive. Sure there are the expected fancy-pants places like Babbo, Osteria Mozza, Carnevino, and Del Posto, all Batali and Bastianich spots, which are worth all the buzz they're given, but there are also spots like Flour + Water in San Francisco, Al Di La in Brooklyn, and up-and-comers like Carbone, Torrisi, and Blanca, great representives from New York City that Italian food has taken the next step, and places like Dan Tana's in Los Angeles, which reveal our desire to hold dear the places that haven't. This year's list is a fantastic selection by a great panel, so peruse the selections below, or click into the gallery for more -- so much more information about them.

-- Arthur Bovino, The Daily Meal