When it comes to romance, lusty Italian food is an aphrodisiac. Lovers of all stripes will be inspired to clasp hands across the table at the 14 exceptional restaurants in our slideshow. From mom-and-pop-style spots to those that exude contemporary elegance, from trattorias with old-country traditions to eateries featuring innovations of modern gastronomía, the hideaways we've chosen form an enchanting travelogue that will take you through several regions of Italy and to all corners of the City.
Al di Là
248 Fifth Ave., 718-783-4565, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Don't let the hour wait at this spirited, Northern Italian trattoria daunt you. Put in your name (the spot doesn't take reservations) and stroll arm in arm around this pretty part of Park Slope—or sip a glass of vino in the adjacent wine bar—until your table is ready. Brooklynites rightfully take local pride in Al di Là, which has become a magnet for food lovers from all over the globe who've heard about the gutsy cooking coming out of Anna Klinger's kitchen. She and her husband, Emiliano Coppa, have pretty much stuck to the same formula since they opened the restaurant in 1998, never upgrading from mismatched chairs and china and keeping buttery, see-through ravioli filled with red beets and ricotta and braised rabbit with black olives and creamy polenta as menu mainstays. A tall glass of chocolate ice cream with hazelnuts and whipped cream is a blissful finish to the evening.
Angelo's of Mulberry Street
146 Mulberry St., 212-966-1277, Little Italy, Manhattan
Who says Little Italy isn't what it used to be? The timeworn area has shrunk, to be sure, and tourists flock here more than locals, but Angelo's remains faithfully unchanged. In business since 1902, this heartwarming, old-school trattoria is always the busiest on Mulberry Street. Hold hands across the table and steal a kiss while white-jacketed, career waiters hurry by, ferrying platters of fried calamari and chicken parmigiana. “Prego,” they'll say as they deposit your cannelloni stuffed with meat, spinach and cheese and deftly refill your glass of sublime Capezzana red. A bottle of olive oil is left on the table, and it's tempting to mop up a pool of it with a basket of bread, but beware: portions are shareable, bordering on ridiculous, posing a challenge for clean-plate clubbers.
321 W. 46th St., 212-246-9171, Theatre District, Manhattan
Lovers of a certain age or couples who are into Gilded Age dining experiences will be enraptured by Barbetta, open since 1906 (and still run by the same family after all these years). The interiors of the 19th-century town house (once owned by the Astors) are embellished with Piemontese antiques, candelabra and a grand chandelier worthy of Liberace. In back is a lush garden complete with a cherub-adorned fountain. The entire experience is anti-hip and the opposite of rustic Italian. The $58 prix-fixe menu is traditional as can be and geared toward pretheater dining, featuring crespelle, garganelli in a simple tomato-basil sauce and beef braised in red wine. On Friday and Saturday nights, a pianist tickles the ivories.
250 E. 83rd St., 212-879-4284, Upper East Side, Manhattan
A proposal is pretty much a nightly occurrence at Erminia, regularly rated the Upper East Side's most romantic Italian restaurant. The dark, wood-detailed dining room is as sweet and cozy as a cabin, lit by lace-covered lamps and tall candles. You might even get corny enough to lock lips in the middle of a spaghetti noodle, à la Lady and the Tramp. Artichokes sautéed in olive oil and garlic, homemade mozzarella with roasted peppers, linguine with clams and veal scaloppine are all top-notch. Even if you're not getting engaged, it's a place where you should sport stylish duds, bow your heads together in intimate conversation and keep your cell phones off.
47 Bond St., 212-533-1932, NoHo, Manhattan
Anyone who walks into Il Buco and doesn't feel the allure has to be heartless. It's a captivating environment, warmed by glinting copper pots, shelves of ceramics and wine bottles, big flower arrangements and bowls of fruit. Happily, it's not all about looks. The Italian-inspired food delivers, from polenta with mushrooms and balsamic to porchetta with lentils, Swiss chard and mustard. Olive oil connoisseurs can do a comparative, two-flight tasting. The wine cellar, which does double-duty as a private dining room, is rumored to be the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado” (he was a patron of the bar upstairs); according to these same rumors, he still haunts the cellar, returning every now and again to sample its wines. Owners Donna Lennard and Alberto Avalle first opened the venue as an antique shop in 1994 and gradually transformed it into a full-fledged restaurant, attracting plenty of artists among the cosmopolitan cast of regulars.
86 W. 3rd St., 212-673-3783, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
Brothers Fernando and Gino Masci, expats from Abruzzo, opened the handsome Il Mulino in the heart of Greenwich Village in 1981 and hit pay dirt—the franchise now stretches from San Juan to Las Vegas to Tokyo. The original remains a classic old-world destination, with flocked wallpaper, lace curtains, enormous floral arrangements and waiters formally attired in tuxedos. It's where you go when you really care about someone and want to make an impression, and not just because it's expensive. The kitchen turns out impeccable cuisine, such as risotto Milanese and osso buco. Reservations on prime nights are hard to score. A lunch date is easier and more conducive to lingering conversation—President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton shared a midday meal here in 2009.
122 E. 27th St., 212-481-7372, Gramercy, Manhattan
It's hard to believe there's any unrest in the world when you're ensconced at I Trulli, a welcoming, country-rustic restaurant with big picture windows and wafting scents of garlic and roasting meats. While the food and service here are running on all cylinders, there is nothing pretentious about the proceedings. From 3 to 8pm, it's happy hour Italian-style at the adjoining enoteca, where you can snuggle over glasses of sparkling Lambrusco and snack on $1 panzerotti. In the dining room, tuck into handmade pasta, zuppa di pesce and braised beef short ribs. Both the menu and the 450-label wine list place an emphasis on Southern Italy, the homeland of the owners, the Marzovilla family.
603 Crescent Ave., 718-733-9503, Little Italy, Bronx
Arthur Avenue is the Little Italy of the Bronx, scattered with a charming array of mom-and-pop specialty food shops and old-school restaurants. Even though it is just off Arthur Avenue, the dark, inviting Roberto is considered the best in the area, named for executive chef Roberto Paciullo, an expat from Salerno who often makes the rounds to ensure his customers are happy. How could they not be? His Southern Italian background is reflected in the excellent grilled sardines with pine nuts, grilled swordfish and flavorful pasta with cauliflower, garlic and breadcrumbs. Great, fresh-baked bread comes from a local bakery. Reservations are not accepted, but the bar is a pleasant place to idle and the staff are such pros that you'll never want for attention. The neighborhood is off the beaten path (getting here by car is recommended), but isn't amore enhanced when you go out of your way?
355 W. 14th St., 212-691-0555, Meatpacking District, Manhattan
Quintessential spaghetti with tomato and basil is the most surprising dish to find at this stylish, elegant jewel in the Meatpacking District. Chef Scott Conant is confident enough to highlight it along with more inventive Italian compositions such as roasted beet casonsei with ricotta, pistachios and poppy seeds and ricotta raviolini with truffles and parmesan froth. For all its modernity, Scarpetta is still a soulful experience, the flavors rich and intense, the service polished and friendly. Walk-ins are accepted in the handsome bar area up front—but for a table at prime time in the dramatic dining room, book a month in advance.
Felidia, 243 E. 58th St., 212-758-1479, Midtown East, Manhattan; Lupa Osteria Romana, 170 Thompson St., 212-982-5089, Greenwich Village, Manhattan; Otto, 1 Fifth Ave., 212-995-9559, Greenwich Village, Manhattan; Babbo, 110 Waverly Place, 212-777-0303, Greenwich Village, Manhattan; Del Posto, 85 Tenth Ave., 212-497-8090, Chelsea, Manhattan
Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and his mother, Lidia Bastianich, are the City's Italian royalty when it comes to their illustrious collection of restaurants. Diners have had a long-standing love affair with Felidia, which opened in a beautiful town house in 1981 and currently features such poetic pastas as pear and pecorino ravioli. Lupa, a lively Roman-style trattoria in Greenwich Village, never disappoints, especially when it comes to dreamy bucatini all'Amatriciana. Every region of Italy is represented on the reasonably priced wine list; Lupa also offers a stellar selection of post-meal Italian liqueurs, perfect for stretching out an indelible evening. The best time to go to Otto is late afternoon, when you can dawdle at the bar over a quartino of wine as the waning sun streams through the windows. Split a griddle-cooked pizza with mushrooms and Taleggio and a wonderful salad of escarole and sunchokes and move on before it gets packed and noisy. Babbo is the superstar of the bunch, where Batali's food brandishes full-throttle passion, exemplified by his famous Mint Love Letters filled with spicy lamb sausage. If you're looking for sweeping, serious grandeur, then hasten to Del Posto in westernmost Chelsea. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you might as well go all out and get the spectacular eight-course menu, finishing with the rapturous chocolate tasting.