Thanks to most rom-coms and Billy Joel songs, there’s a lot of pressure on Italian restaurants to be quaint and romantic places, where candlelight flickers on the faces of a couple who just broke-up, made-up, and got engaged on the same night. Based on the stereotype, the kitchen should be staffed by a multi-generational family who sometimes throw wooden spoons at each other. And a couple of dogs eating spaghetti in the back alley would be nice.
We can’t promise that you’ll find those things at the 14 spots on this guide, but we can promise that you’ll find some great food. Come to these places with the confidence that, even if your night doesn’t end under the moonlight as a Sinatra song plays, it’ll end with you walking-off some excellent pasta and trying to figure out when you can go back again.
Coppa is close to being the perfect neighborhood Italian restaurant. In the summer, you can post up at a shaded sidewalk table on a quiet South End corner. And its menu of small plates and pizza changes enough to keep you on your toes. Unfortunately, it’s also really hard to get into, but it’s open for lunch and in the afternoons, so the next time you “work from home,” make your way here and have the wood-oven baked gemelli with a glass of red as you dial-in to a conference call you’re not going to pay attention to anyway.
Before you lie to a potential employer about your ability to multitask, remember this: you’re better off doing just a few things and being great at them than trying to do it all. SRV in the South End is an Italian restaurant that doesn’t bother with pizza or large protein entrees. It just focuses on pasta and small plates, and it does them all really, really well. There’s a great creamy polenta with fried shrimp, a clam risotto that isn’t too rich to finish, and a squid ink tagliatelle that’s balanced well with some sweet lobster. It’s all good and it’s served in a big comfortable space that has outdoor seating, light fixtures made of crystal decanters, and a wine bar.
Giulia on the edge of Porter Square has a “pasta table” by the kitchen. You can book it for a big group and then eat a family-style pasta meal that the kitchen staff spent all day making by hand. But even if your dream isn’t to eat a meal at a table where you might need to spend the night wiping flour from your sleeves, you should get here anyway, because it’s the type of intimate spot that you’ll want to come to every time you’re in the mood for “a nice little Italian place.” You might have trouble deciding between all the different pasta options, but you can take solace in the fact that there are no bad choices here. Just know that you’ll have to make reservations at least a month in advance.
Seeing as how it’s filled with suburban day-trippers, people buying “Bahstan Is Wicked Pissah” tee-shirts, and chefs who should probably pay royalties to their nonnas considering how many of her recipes they stole, places on Hanover Street are hard to trust. Taranta doesn’t have the lines that a lot of mediocre red sauce places in the North End have, but it has an Italian-Peruvian fusion menu that’s familiar but exciting. Get the cassava root gnocchi and enjoy glasses of wine that are actually under $10 in this small, dark place that remains mercifully undercrowded.
La Morra in Brookline is down the street from a number of hospitals, so it’s not unusual to be intermittently serenaded by ambulances while you’re having a meal here. But that white noise will easily be drowned out by some outstanding food, including choices from a cicchetti menu, which is essentially Italian-style tapas. The fried anchovies wrapped in sage leaves and chicken and duck liver pate, in particular, are the perfect negroni companions - and their tagliatelle bolognese is one of the city’s best. If you end your night with a cheese platter, tiramisu, and a digestif, there’s always the hope that a nice ambulance driver could give you a ride home.
One of the most underrated aspects of the Italian meal is the digestivo. There you are, looking around to see if anyone will notice you loosening your belt and feeling reluctant to head back to your place, when all of a sudden, another drink appears. And what a pretty glass it comes in. Pammy’s on the edge of Harvard Square has an extensive list of these digestifs, which is nice, because with a fireplace and a menu of things like taglierini with oxtail and mussels with squid ink arancini, you won’t want to leave any time soon.
Fat Hen is usually a place you can walk into on any weeknight. You should take advantage of that, because the small spot out in East Somerville has a tiny but outstanding menu of small-plate pastas and interesting entrees like swordfish with beans, pickled ramps, and wild watercress (the last of which sounds like something you’d feed a horse, but is actually quite flavorful). The seasonal agnolotti is our go-to second course on the nightly $65 four-course prix-fixe meal here.
Having an opera-singing bartender isn’t one of our requirements for making this list, but it’s a pretty good start. The bartender at Mida on the South End/Roxbury border occasionally pauses from shaking a martini to sing a few bars of an aria that we’re not cultured enough to identify by ear. Thankfully, this place also has a strong menu of things like seared scallops with bone marrow and golden raisins, and it’s in a cool space where you’ll happily spend a few hours before going back to an apartment that is, sadly, entirely bereft of teardrop lamps, comfortable leather booths, and anyone who knows how to sing the overture to La Traviata.
If you’re one of those people who looks at a map and pictures “here be dragons” written over any neighborhood the T doesn’t reach, then you’re missing out on one of the city’s best Italian restaurants in Roslindale Square. Delfino is a tiny spot that makes big plates of things like open-faced lobster ravioli and a veal saltimbocca that bleeds cheese like a wounded Frenchman. It’s crowded just about every night, but you can usually walk-in.
Even though it’s so crowded, the North End is still plenty romantic thanks to its twisting streets, corner cafes, and the hourly reenactment of the make-out session Paul and Rachel Revere engaged in before he set off on his midnight ride. (OK, we may have made that last one up.) If you’re looking for a romantic North End night yourself, Prezza on Fleet Street is your best bet. It’s a white-tablecloth spot far from the tourists on Hanover, and with a menu of things like crispy shrimp with cherry pepper aioli and smoked ricotta ravioli with braised veal, you’ll be eating better than they do as well.
If you’re the kind of person who likes foods with bread, then the flavorless bruschetta at most Italian restaurants is probably pretty depressing. Thankfully, you have a whole host of excellent crostini options at Bar Mezzana - the fig, gorgonzola, and salami one is particularly enjoyable. There’s also some great pasta, like the paccheri with lobster green onion and tomato, as well as a crudo list that’s longer than The Irishman.
Seeing as how Benedetto is in the Charles Hotel and likely serves every head-of-state, Nobel laureate, and TED-talking social media disrupter who visits Harvard, it’s not surprising that this Harvard Square spot feels pretty high-end. But the prices aren’t actually that unreasonable for a white tablecloth place that has caviar and black truffle on the menu. If you don’t want to wait for a special occasion to come here, you can always grab a seat at the bar with a barrel-aged cocktail and one of their excellent small plates, like the pecorino with almond panforte or the vitello tonnato with pickled alliums.
Sorellina in Back Bay is pricey. And with plush white chairs, glimmering surfaces, and lots of professional people drinking martinis, it also feels like a restaurant that the high-powered but unfulfilled career woman in a Hallmark movie would patronize (that is, just before she meets the hunky horse-trainer, moves out of the city, and spends long mornings casually brushing the coat of a horse named Honeysuckle). But if you don’t mind overhearing conversations about ETFs and mutual funds while you eat, it’s one of the better fine-dining Italian restaurants in the city. Save it for a special occasion and get the chestnut cavatelli with wild boar.