"There are two kinds of people in the world," chef Mario Batali said recently at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO, "those who are Italian, and those who wish they were Italian."
No wonder: Italian restaurants across America are raising the bar. Think of all the Neapolitan pizzerias opened in the past decade, the focus on handmade pastas and authentic ingredients, and hip concepts like Torrisi Italian Specialties, which put New York's Little Italy back on the serious foodie's map. Consider the success of Batali himself: his Del Posto is the first four-star Italian restaurant in New York since 1974, and his emporium Eataly teems with both locals and tourists.
Just when you think Italian can't get any hotter, it does. So what are America's best Italian restaurants? And should four-star restaurants be considered alongside exemplary pizzerias like Frank Pepe in New Haven, CT, and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix? Heck, yes. For an Italian restaurant to be considered truly great, it should do what it does best.
What's certain is that each of these 20 Italian restaurants is a destination worth checking off your list. See how many you've tried, and then share your local favorites in the comments below.
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/3" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> This Nob Hill institution helmed by co-owners Giancarlo Paterlini and Suzette Gresham-Tognetti isn’t just the fine-dining Italian restaurant you go to for special occasions out of habit. It’s stayed consistently great and kept relevant since its 1989 debut, winning a coveted Michelin star for six years and counting. For the best representation, try the classic tasting menu, where you’re likely to sample the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala sauce with black truffles or the truffle-stuffed chicken with leek custard with potato gratin and creminis. There’s a seasonal tasting, too, and you can always order à la carte for a more contemporary take on the classic flavors of Italian food using the freshest ingredients California can provide.<br><br> <em>Photo: Daniel Morris</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/4" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> In downtown Charleston’s Elliotborough, Ken Vedrinski celebrates family-style dining, paying tribute to his grandmother who grew up in the Abruzzo region. There are imported cheese and salumi, and hand-rolled pastas, but Vedrinski is perhaps best known locally for his commitment to farm-to-table produce and fresh seafood from the waters surrounding Charleston. So you can’t go wrong ordering any of the crudos the chef has put on the menu. Or put your meal entirely in his hands by joining the Monday evening family supper, a communal seating during which Vedrinski serves a new four-course prix fixe menu for $38. <br><br> <em>Photo: Andrew Stephen Cebulka</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/5" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich are the forces behind this opulent 24,000-square-foot temple to upscale Italian dining, accompanied by live piano music. It took millions to create, but payoff came with star-studded reviews, notably four stars in 2010, from The New York Times’ then–restaurant critic Sam Sifton—a first for Batali, despite all his restaurants, and a first for the publication in 34 years. And while you don’t eat stars, chef Mark Ladner’s lardo with bread, jalapeño crab pasta, and heavenly 100-layer lasagna make you feel like you’re eating among them. The emphasis on high-end service and preparation should make the French jealous. <br><br> <em>Photo: Kelly Campbell</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/6" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> Chef Tony Mantuano’s romantic restaurant overlooks Oak Street beach (spiaggia means “beach” in Italian), and the airy dining room is tiered, so every table has a view of Lake Michigan. It’s been a Magnificent Mile fixture since 1984, long before executive chef Sarah Grueneberg was on Top Chef—and before President Barack Obama called Mantuano his “favorite chef.” Look forward to the homemade pastas, the wood-grilled veal chop, and, if you vote Democrat, the wood-roasted diver scallop, which is said to be the president’s favorite dish. <br><br> <em>Photo: Jeff Kauck</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/7" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> Boulder isn’t the first place you’d look for one of America’s best Italian restaurants, but it certainly shouldn’t be last. The philosophy of master sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s Italian restaurant in the shadow of the Rockies is based on the neighborhood restaurants in the subalpine region of northeast Italy—informal gathering places inspired by the cuisine and culture of Friuli. Begin with the grissini (pencil-size crispy breadsticks) and cocktails at the bar before moving on to whichever pastas you’re lucky enough to find on the menu that night—pray for tortelloni). Oh, and there’s the matter of that wine list, which boasts more than 200 varieties. <br><br> <em>Photo: Courtesy of Frasca Food & Wine</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/8" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> Pizza fanatics know that this spot has a reputation for the best pies in the Southwest. The recently expanded hours make for an easier-to-attain experience, detracting a bit from the bragging rights of getting here, but enabling more people to get a taste. Start with the basics: The Sonny Boy (salami and olives, wood-roasted onion, house-smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage), The Rosa (red onion, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and pistachios), or an old-school Marinara. <br><br> <em>Photo: <a href="http://calcarcover.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">Tony DeFrank</a></em>
<strong><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-italian-restaurants-in-the-us/9" target="_hplink">See More of the Best Italian Restaurants in the U.S.</a></strong> <br><br> This New Haven pizzeria is the stuff of legend. It’s all about a thin, light crust, formed in coal-fired brick ovens and topped with a salty-sweet sauce, and the cheese—specifically, knowing when to say, “Hold the mozz.” There are other Frank Pepe locations, including one in Yonkers, NY, which makes pies almost as good as those in New Haven. But there’s nothing like eating a Frank Pepe pie on Wooster Street or at the adjacent original location next door, The Spot. The must? Clam pie. And once you’ve tried it, the conversation about the best pizza in America really begins. <br><br> <em>Photo: <a href="http://www.hogophoto.com/" target="_blank">Howard Gorchov</a></em>
Follow Travel + Leisure on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TravlandLeisure