Italian food is one of New York City’s greatest treasures. Lucky for you, we don’t exactly keep it a secret. Each of NYC’s five boroughs features a range of Italian eateries, from humble neighborhood red-sauce joints to internationally celebrated restaurants with name-brand chefs, that serve the epitome of the cuisine. In fact, Italian cooking is so ubiquitous that it has become a fundamental part of NYC’s culture, and indulging in it is just one way to experience local history.
NYC owes this flavorful heritage to immigrants, many of whom arrived in Manhattan from Southern Italy beginning in the late 19th century. Forced to adapt their recipes to regional ingredients—canned tomatoes, say, and an abundance of meat—these newcomers contributed novel flavors to the New York food scene. By the middle of the 1900s, Italian-American specialties, including spaghetti and meatballs, clams Posillipo and veal parmigiana, had become enormously popular, a testament to the tastiness of those dishes and the ingenuity of the chefs who’d created them.
Back then, Italian food was a working-class cuisine—filling, delicious and cheap. These days you can still find restaurants that serve wallet-friendly meals, as well as those that have elevated the cuisine to an art form. Read on for 12 of our current favorites.
Greenwich Village’s Babbo was one of the first restaurants to introduce upscale Italian cooking. Given its high-end factor and impressive selection of pricey Barolos, it’s no surprise to find that the restaurant’s menu ventures into some uncommon arenas: lamb tongue ravioli, warm tripe parmigiana and handmade garganelli with mushroom and pappardelle Bolognese among them. The pasta tasting menu (worth the $95 price tag) lets you try a bit of everything.
Fans of this old-school Williamsburg joint include Mike Piazza and Leonardo DiCaprio; the late James Gandolfini was also a customer. The family-run restaurant, in business since 1900, is celebrated for its classic menu and decor: white tablecloths, scarlet red walls and velvet drapes, plus waiters in suits. Your meal begins with a basket of crispy Italian bread, served alongside a bowl of individually wrapped butter packets, and usually ends with a shot of Sambuca (on the house). The clams casino, pork chop alla Bamonte (featuring pickled cherry peppers) and the tortellini Bolognese, with green beans and potatoes for the table, make for an ideal meal.
Elegant Del Posto is a jewel in NYC’s Italian food scene. The restaurant’s stylishly dark interior is perfect for a romantic dinner or a drink at the sweeping bar (bonus points if you’re there at the same time as the pianist). If you’re looking to go all out, this Meatpacking District spot is the place to do it. Try the eight-course menu for a mixture of innovative preparations, including pasta, meat and fish.
This Staten Island staple serves home-cooked meals prepared by real Italian nonnas (“grandmothers”). The menu changes daily based on whatever a particular nonna is cooking; dishes reflect each chef's connection to a region of Italy. When Nonna Adelina from Campania cooks, for instance, expect rustic Neapolitan dishes like tagliatelle alla mantovana, with pumpkin and Grana Padano cheese. For the adventurous, there might be sheep’s head stuffed with chicken livers, hearts and gizzards; go-tos for more mainstream tastes include the homemade meatballs and cannolo.
Chef-owner Frank Prisinzano is a pretty popular guy. His empire consists of Sauce, Lil Frankie’s, Supper and his namesake restaurant, Frank. This neighborhood joint fits perfectly with the casual East Village. The prices are reasonable, the clientele unpretentious and the dishes perfectly rendered Italian mainstays. Start with creamy burrata imported from Puglia or the black kale Caesar, sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Follow with the pappardelle, made in-house and served with veal ragu that’s been stewing for eight hours. Order extra bread and use it to fare la scarpetta, which translates into “do the small shoe,” an expression for scraping up leftover sauce in your bowl. (Sidebar: Frank is the reason many of us have gym memberships.)
Find a bit of Bologna in the East Village. At Hearth, chef Marco Canora serves some of the City’s best brodo—broth made from animal bones. His version blends chicken, turkey and grass-fed beef bones with turmeric and black pepper. The decor has a rustic vibe, with brick walls, wood tables and a chalkboard behind its bar, and the menu features peasant dishes like polenta and ribollita (a Tuscan vegetable stew). Order the latter with whole grain bread and whipped lardo.
Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
This casual Noho trattoria, sister restaurant to the fancier Il Buco, features a wine bar and gourmet Italian market up front and a back dining room with communal tables and an open kitchen. Start with crispy artichokes with preserved lemon before diving into a pasta dish like the busiate (a kind of spiral macaroni) with tomatoes and capers. The house-cured meats, baked breads and olive oil, as well as the salty perfection of Il Buco’s porchetta, have cemented its place in the field.
Chef Missy Robbins leads the charge at this Williamsburg restaurant, emphasizing pastas and homemade sauces. Our favorite? Their diavola sauce, with San Marzano tomatoes, chilies, oregano, caramelized garlic and Pecorino Romano cheese. The chef, who earned a Michelin star during her time at A Voce, took a three-year break from cooking professionally to perfect her recipes at home. The curly edged mafaldine, coated with pink peppercorns and Parmesan, is another high point.
James Beard award–winning chef Andrew Carmellini is the force behind this Tribeca hot spot (located in the Greenwich Hotel). As at all of his restaurants, Carmellini, who heads up Bar Primi and The Dutch , uses fresh ingredients to drive his dishes. Favorites include sheep’s milk ricotta made with sea salt and herbs, My Grandmother’s Ravioli (self-explanatory) and the steak tartare Piemontese, done a little differently than the French version; Carmellini uses wagyu beef, hazelnuts and black truffles.
Locanda Vini e Olii
Housed in a former neighborhood pharmacy, this Clinton Hill trattoria retains the exterior signage of the previous tenant but inside serves up Tuscan-inspired cuisine. Chef Michele Baldacci, who hails from Florence, uses seasonal, fresh ingredients to create dishes that may be unfamiliar to diners. Take the maltagliati (a pasta typically eaten in the Emiglia-Romagna region of Italy), made with thyme in the pasta dough, served with mushrooms; or the traditional Tuscan peasant meal, ribollita. The mashed-up veggie dish combines stale bread with carrots, zucchini, cannellini beans and squash, and is immensely satisfying on a cold winter day. Don’t sleep on another specialty—grilled duck breast marinated in honey and topped with shallot and fig marmalade.
Located in the posh Gramercy Hotel, Maialino (“little pig” in Italian) features a refined menu inspired by traditional Roman pastas, including the straightforward cacio e pepe and the spicy, saucy bucatini all’Amatriciana. Danny Meyer’s no-tipping establishment does justice to those dishes, but its signature malfatti alla Maialino, made with braised suckling pig, may be the real standout. If you’re with a group, try the Maialino al forno (a centerpiece of the menu)—slow-roasted pork topped with rosemary.
Chef Michael White’s love affair with Italian food started in the late ’90s with his seven-year training at the historic San Domenico restaurant in Imola, Italy, working under the direction of chef Valentino Marcattilii. White presents Italian cuisine flawlessly at all six of his NYC restaurants, but seafood-centric Marea may be his most celebrated. Try the fusilli with red-wine-braised octopus and bone marrow for major flavor, and consider the crudo tasting menu, where the delicate slices of fish are presented like jewels.