The Casual Italian Restaurant Guide  guide image


The Casual Italian Restaurant Guide

From an Arthur Avenue classic to a tiny takeout spot in Windsor Terrace, these are the reliable neighborhood Italian restaurants where you'll want to be every weeknight.

Here, we’re specifically discussing the casual, neighborhood Italian spot. These aren't places where your pasta will be topped with truffles. They're reliable restaurants where you can eat some reasonably priced spaghetti on a Tuesday night or roll in with a group of six and not blow $100 on dinner. Checkered tablecloths and bottles of house red wine ahead.



Ortobello’s is a destination-worthy restaurant on Bay Parkway in Mapleton, Brooklyn. The combination of photographs and a papier-mâché nativity scene at this old-school Italian spot makes you feel like you’re eating at someone’s grandparents’ house. Expect to hear lots of Louis Prima while you eat the entire order of mozzarella in carrozza that should be the opener to your meal. Add some red sauce classics like outstanding chicken parm and penne alla vodka, and save room for the citrusy ricotta cheesecake.

We’ve never seen waitstaff who are as effusive about their daily specials as the people at Tra Di Noi in Belmont. They could just be good at their jobs, but the table next to you will also chime in to confirm that yes, the swordfish is to die for. So get the swordfish—or any other seafood special, really—and a pasta per person to share. This place has checkerboard-tablecloth charm, and the staff are warm and welcoming from the moment you walk in to your enthusiastic exit interview at the end.

Vinatería is one of the best spots in Harlem for a romantic night out. The dark, candlelit space is dotted with small oval tables that are filled with couples who are here for reliable Italian and Spanish food. Always start with the bacalao croquettes, then go for the black spaghetti with scallops, mussels, and panko. They have Happy Hour until 7pm every day, and the bar is lively, so this is also a great place to come by yourself and eat a bowl of pasta with something from the long wine list.

Vinny’s of Carroll Gardens is a longtime neighborhood staple that specializes in homestyle Italian cooking. Come here when you want unfussy comfort food that you can eat in your comfiest loungewear while still getting a change of scenery from your couch. The dining room is low-key and built around the giant steam table that serves as the basis for a lot of their menu. Start with fried calamari, then get the can’t-miss rigatoni alla norma. If you’re doing takeout, order an eggplant parm sandwich. It’s massive, saucy, and very cheesy in all the right ways.

Making the trip to Gravesend for a Sicilian slice and spumoni at one of L&B’s many outdoor tables is a New York rite of passage, but it would be a mistake to write this classic establishment off as merely a slice shop. L&B makes some of the best red sauce Italian in Brooklyn, so it’s worth getting a table inside to try their very good non-pizza options. We especially love the rice balls, the parmigiana sandwiches, and any pasta served under a blanket of tangy pink vodka sauce.

There’s no seating at this tiny takeaway spot on the border of Windsor Terrace, but that doesn’t mean Joe Brancaccio doesn’t make some of the best Italian food in the whole city. The move here is to pick up dinner to-go: meatballs, orecchiette with broccoli rabe, and rotisserie porchetta are some of our favorites. Toss a white cloth on your kitchen table, light a candle in an old wine bottle, and lay out your Brancaccio’s bounty for a private, charming meal in your house slippers.

SoleLuna is a Sunnyside restaurant where you can have a coffee at the bar during the day in a sun-soaked room with old brick walls. Or, stop by later at night when the space fills up with locals sharing simple pastas and bottles of wine. This place serves perfected staples like a basic lasagna, spaghetti alle vongole, and a fresh, bright pollo al limone—but pay special attention to the dinner specials. Past favorites include an inexplicably flavorful octopus-and-mango salad and a creamy gorgonzola fregola.

If the sheer number of Italian spots on Arthur Avenue gives you a feeling of paralysis because you can’t decide where to go, we’re here to make your decision easy. Head to Zero Otto Nove. Order the insalata di mare with eight different types of seafood in addition to the comforting baked rigatoni and meatballs smothered with melted mozzarella. Try to get a table in the main dining room, which is painted to look like a courtyard in Italy. It’s a little cheesy, but charming nonetheless.

Cafe Spaghetti serves simple, quality Italian food, and it’s the perfect addition to the Carroll Gardens aesthetic. Their spaghetti pomodoro with simple tomato-and-basil sauce on handmade pasta tastes like your everyday spaghetti if it went through an episode of Rustic Rehab on HGTV. Since this place has a super cute yard filled with small round tables under yellow umbrellas, there’s no other place you want to be when the weather’s nice and you want to eat some cacio e pepe arancini and tiramisu outside.

When you walk into Patsy’s, the first things you’ll see are a statue of Frank Sinatra and a signed headshot of Liza Minelli, so you know this place is legit. Eating here feels like taking a trip in a time machine back to an era when West 56th and Broadway was the coolest spot in town. Stick to the classics, like rigatoni fra diavolo, spaghetti and meatballs, and anything parmigiana. When the dessert cart comes around, point at the carrot cake. It’s one of the best we’ve had.

Every time we mention Malatesta, someone inevitably says, “Oh, I love that place!” Located on a corner of Washington Street in the West Village, this restaurant has a great outdoor seating situation, but the cozy, brick-walled inside is charming as well. The menu is short and simple: antipasti, pastas, salads, and a few protein options. Start with the grilled calamari, share the spinach gnocchi with rich gorgonzola sauce, then finish with the veal meatballs. You’ll want to say something cheesy like: “This is just like grandma used to make.” Keep it to yourself.

Stop by Noodle Pudding on a reasonably warm day, and the big front windows might be open, letting a breeze run through the old-school, Brooklyn Heights dining room. Start your meal with the jumbo fritto misto, get some burrata, and order as much pasta as you can handle. The lasagna bolognese is always a good choice, although it’s about as large and dense as a car battery. And that’s only a slight exaggeration. This place is cash-only, they don’t take reservations, and the bar is a wonderful spot for a solo meal.

Uva is a rustic, cozy little Italian restaurant that’s perfect for date night on the Upper East Side. You’ll always find a lively crowd in the dining room that’s decorated like a Tuscan farmhouse with chandeliers. The food is better than what you’ll find at most neighborhood spots, and the menu is big enough that pretty much anyone can find something they like. Start with meats and cheeses alongside the baby artichoke salad, then, go for whatever pasta sounds good to you.

Lil Frankie’s in the East Village works well for many day-to-day situations: a casual catch-up, brunch, a big group dinner, or even a date. And the food—pasta, thin crust pizzas, some vegetables—is all satisfying. The two essential dishes here are the whole roasted eggplant, which you should get spicy, and the spaghetti limone. (You'll want a second order, so just get two from the jump.) There’s always a crowd, but you can usually get a table without too long of a wait, and be sure to bring cash because they don’t take cards.

Celebrate the day you were born at Saraghina. Or just look through your phone, find all the people you can tolerate, and organize a big group dinner. There’s plenty of room at this Bed-Stuy spot, which looks like a nice antique store. The thing to get here is a Neapolitan-style pizza, but they also have some small bites like tuna carpaccio and larger items like braised short ribs with polenta. If it’s nice out, you’ll want to be sitting in the backyard.

If you’re in the Clinton Hill or Fort Greene area, this is already your favorite local Italian spot. The restaurant is in a charming, date night-ready space that used to be a pharmacy, and the Northern Italian food is pretty great. There’s also an excellent and reasonably priced wine list, so load up on some ​​Valpolicella along with the sformato, the ribollita (which is technically a soup, but isn’t really a soup), and some pastas.

Say you’re meeting up with a friend in Chelsea, and you’re looking for a casual, attractive place where you can eat a bowl of pasta and make some light conversation. Go to Pastai. They make all their pastas—like bucatini with sardines and garganelli with burrata—in house, and you can get any of them gluten-free. There’s also a bar where you can put your head down and spend some quality time with noodles, if that’s the sort of dinner you’re having.

​​If we rated restaurants purely on how good they are at making pasta, Fiaschetteria Pistoia would get a near-perfect score. The pasta at this East Village spot, which has one of the most rustic-looking rooms in the city, is all housemade, and it’s consistently flawless. Try the creamy cacio e pepe or the gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce. We also like the zucchini flan and the fact that their “wine list” is several tagged bottles in an old-timey metal basket that they bring to your table.

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photo credit: Emily Schindler

The Casual Italian Restaurant Guide  guide image