The Casual Italian Restaurant Guide

Casual Italian: the reliable, neighborhood spots you want to be at every Sunday night. Here are our favorites.

If you want to eat Italian food in New York City, you can have it pretty much any way you want. You can have an expensive tasting menu, you can have a slice of pizza, and you can have pretty much anything in between. And it’s that in-between we find so many people most interested in. Here, we’re specifically discussing the casual, neighborhood Italian spot. Not the place where your pasta will be topped with truffles, but the reliable places you can share spaghetti with your date, or roll in with a group of eight and not blow $80 on dinner. Red tablecloths and cheap bottles of red wine ahead.

The Spots

Looking for a casual neighborhood Italian restaurant in the East Village is like looking for a bong shop on St. Marks - it’s not hard. And they’re probably all fine. Il Posto Accanto doesn’t get talked about quite as much as others, like Supper nearby, and it’s on the low-key side. That’s why we like it so much. Plan to roll up to the bar and order some of the best meatballs in town along with a whole lot of red wine.

There are a lot of good, simple Italian restaurants in the East Village, and Lavagna is one of the best. Compared to its peers, the crowd is a little older and the food is generally also a little better. The service can be harsh, but in just the right way.

Every time we mention Malatesta, someone inevitably says, “Oh, I love that place!” Located on a corner on Washington Street in the West Village, Malatesta has a great outdoor seating situation, but the cozy, brick-walled inside is also the kind of place you’d want to hide out in the winder. The menu is short and simple - pastas, salads, and a few protein options.

If you ever look at a clock, see that it’s 5pm, and realize that you have a date to plan in Fort Greene, go to Dino. This place has a chalkboard menu and candles on every table, and it looks exactly like what you picture when someone says the phrase “cute neighborhood Italian spot.” The pastas here are all pretty good (especially the spaghetti limone), the portions are large, and there’s even a nice backyard.

Chances are, you’ve never heard of Il Passatore. But if you have any friends in East Williamsburg, this is probably where they go when they need to sit in the dark and eat noodles covered in meat sauce. This cash-only Italian spot serves some lamb ragu as well some good burrata tortellini, and you should always start a meal with here with a piadina stuffed with prosciutto.

Testo is only about a 10-minute walk east of Il Passatore in Williamsburg, and it’s from the same owners. Il Passatore is just a tiny bit more intimate (due to the lack of natural light), but they’re essentially the same restaurant, and we recommend you go to whichever spot is closer. Bring someone for a first dinner date and have some pasta or piadini, or, if you live nearby, make it your go-to spot for tomato-covered strings of carbs.

photo credit: Emily Schindler

Noodle Pudding review image

Noodle Pudding

$$$$(718) 625-3737

Ridiculous name aside, there are a few reasons people come to this spot on the DUMBO/Brooklyn Heights border, and one of those reasons is the $15 bottle of the house Merlot. Yes, bottle. The other reasons are the welcoming vibes and quality food.

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Uva is the ultimate Upper East Side second date spot. It has the brick wall and chandeliers thing going on, as well as an excellent outdoor patio.

Marlow Bistro is on the northern end of the Upper West Side, and it’s about as broadly Mediterranean as olive oil and maritime commerce. The menu has everything from octopus and burrata to filet mignon with hummus and falafel, and there are also a bunch of solid pastas and pizzas. Plus, the whole place looks like a vintage farmhouse. It has tiled floors, potted plants, and an old-timey espresso machine, and if you take someone to dinner here, they’ll probably try to marry you.

Saggio is an extremely pleasant place to grab dinner in Washington Heights. Claim a table in the small, dark dining room, drink a few $10 glasses of wine, and eat a big portion of housemade pasta. Will the food blow your mind? Probably not. But we’d still come here several times a month.

Spaghetti Incident’s main thing is that they serve spaghetti in a paper cone to takeaway. It’s actually a fairly genius invention - the cone makes for perfect swirling while you walk down the street. But eating here is surprisingly nice too. The space is dark and tight, but cozy. Come with a small party, and plan to eat spaghetti. There are a few other things on the menu, but not a whole lot.

If you’re familiar with Aria Wine Bar in the West Village (as well as Hell’s Kitchen), Cotenna will look suspiciously familiar. It’s pretty much the same restaurant (same menu, same decor), only less than half the size. And that means it’s good for dates, the service is friendly, and most things cost twelve dollars or less. Cotenna gets a little cramped at peak hours, however, so go with someone you won’t mind getting cozy with.

This place is from the same people who own Cotenna. It looks almost exactly the same, and it has the same menu. Also, it’s only about a block away. So why does it exist? Because people love affordable pasta. If you don’t believe us, try to go to Cotenna or Codino on a Friday night. And if you happen to get a table, order the lasagna.

Yet another place from the Cotenna people, Briciola is a wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen, and it’s pretty much the same as all it’s sister restaurants (cute dark space, $16 pasta, etc.) The only difference is, it only has communal bar seating. Try it for a quick meal before a Broadway show, or grab some food here and catch up with a friend.

We probably send people to Lil Frankie’s more than we send them almost anywhere else. Not because it’s the best restaurant in town, but because it’s one that works so well for so 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 reasonably priced and always satisfying. It looks small from the outside, and there’s always a crowd, but there are actually a number of smaller rooms in the back, meaning you’ll usually get a table without too long a wait

Another one of those far-west West Village places that people love to think of as “their place.” And we don’t blame them: this restaurant is “cute,” fun, and serves nice takes on the usuals (pizza, pasta, branzino, et al.) that don’t cost too much.

Vesta is where you eat with your aunt and uncle in Astoria. It’s also where you bring a date when you need to seem like the kind of person who goes to bed at a decent hour and folds laundry right out of the dryer. It’s a small, friendly neighborhood trattoria, and it’s a great spot for a relatively quiet meal. Get the boar lasagna, and try to make it for Happy Hour (5-7pm on weekdays).

The older sibling to Lil Frankie’s, and the original in the Frank Prisinzano empire of downtown casual Italian restaurants. It’s small and tight, but the food and vibe are always spot on.

Have your birthday at Saraghina. Or just look through your phone, find all the people you can stand, and organize a big-group dinner. There’s plenty of room here, the pizza is fantastic, and most things cost less than $20. Even if you don’t live nearby, you should still find some time to have a meal at this Bed-Stuy spot.

Tavola has the distinct honor of being the best thing to exist on the weird stretch of 9th Avenue behind the Port Authority. The Italian food is totally solid, and the space has a charming market-in-Rome kind of vibe. Stick to the pastas over the pizzas.

Every neighborhood has a Tiramisu. It’s a solid neighborhood Italian spot on the Upper East Side that’s good for a casual date or a meal with your family, and there’s some nice sidewalk seating for when it’s warm outside. Have a salad and thin-crust pizza, and be sure to eat plenty of the free garlic focaccia.

Alberto is an old-school Italian spot in Forest Hills with free bread, excellent gnocchi, and a TV behind the bar in case you want to watch sports while you make small talk with a bartender in a tie. It’s a great spot to grab a nice meal with some family members when you realize you haven’t had a meaningful conversation with them in several weeks, and or if you need a place for a semi-celebratory meal.

It’s possible you came to New York expecting your restaurant life to involve skulking up to dimly-lit bars, ordering a glass of red wine and some pasta, and furiously scribbling into a notebook like a journalist in a limited-release 90’s movie. What you’re really looking for in this scenario is Bar Tano: a neighborhood spot in Gowanus with a Happy Hour that runs from 3-7pm every weekday. We’d suggest sticking to the pastas on the menu (as opposed to the entrees) and remembering Bar Tano for the next time you’re seeing a live podcast show at The Bell House - it’s down the street.

Gersi is the Cobble Hill default for quality Italian food that won’t cost much more than what you’d spend on groceries trying to make your own meal. Almost everything costs less than $20, the food is pretty standard and exactly what you want it to be, and this is actually a pretty cool spot. It’s a long dark space that gets pretty busy, and it’s great for a group dinner with a couple of friends.

A midtown-specific casual Italian joint, this one’s worth knowing about for pre-theater or a post-office bowl of pasta. With classic red booths and prices mostly under $20, keep it in mind for when your aunt takes you to see Book Of Mormon, or something.

If you’re in the Clinton Hill or Fort Greene area, this is already your favorite local Italian spot. The restaurant is an old pharmacy turned into an extremely charming place, and the Northern Italian food is great. There’s also an excellent and reasonably priced wine list. This place hits all the cozy, rustic, neighborhood notes just right.

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.

San Matteo is our pick for best neighborhood Italian spot on the Upper West Side, mostly because it’s just so versatile. The space is big, with two floors and plenty of windows, and if you’re with someone who just wants to eat bread and cheese, they make some great Neapolitan pizzas here. Plus, there’s a bar where you can hang out and watch sports.

If you live within walking distance of Santa Panza in Bushwick, we’d be surprised if you don’t already eat there all the time. It’s a charming space with brick walls, a little backyard, and a dining room that wraps around a bar and an open kitchen, and it’s exactly the kind of spot where you’ll want to become a regular. The Neapolitan pizzas are the best in the neighborhood, and you can also get some stuff like a great bowl of clams and some very good pappardelle al ragu here.

Bonafini very much feels like someone’s living room. It’s a small Italian spot across from Prospect Park in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and it’s filled with mismatched furniture and framed pictures of various flora and fauna you’d expect to find at a yard sale. You can get a very good bowl of pasta here, and you can also stop by for an egg sandwich or a chia bowl in the morning.

If your average neighborhood Italian spot is a quality pre-owned sedan, Camillo is a newer-model coupe with leather upholstery. It’s still pretty casual, and you can sit at the bar by yourself and get to know a bartender while you have a solo weeknight meal, but it’s also great for a date night or a dinner with some visiting family members. It’s a long, open room with high ceilings and brick walls decorated with copper pots and fancy mirrors, and they specialize in Roman flatbreads known as pinsas. Split one with someone, and add an order of tonnarelli carbonara.

Bono Trattoria works for a lot of things, and that’s why it’s our favorite neighborhood Italian spot in Harlem. You can stop by for Happy Hour and drink a bunch of wine while you snack on something, or you can plan a date night or casual dinner with your roommates here. The pizzas are excellent, the pastas are exactly what you want them to be, and if it’s warm, they’ll open up their windows so you feel like you’re dining outside.

Aita is on a corner in Clinton Hill, and it’s the sort of place you wish you had on your block. If you need a quaint, casual place to share some very good seasonal Italian food with a date or some friends, Aita is an excellent choice.

The people behind Aita in Clinton Hill also run this neighborhood spot in Crown Heights. If you’re in the area, come by for dinner with a few friends or a date who you wouldn’t mind sharing some pasta and a few small plates with. The lasagna is big enough for two and will make all of the other lasagna you’ve eaten in your life seem questionable.

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 is all housemade, and it’s consistently delicious. Take the creamy cacio e pepe or the spaghetti in a simple tomato sauce. You’ll want to eat several plates of either of these things, and you’ll probably want to have a date with you while you do so.

Against all odds, that one East Village spot with a name that’s really hard to pronounce opened up a second location in the West Village. Is it because they make delicious pasta? Probably, yes. The West Village location is even smaller than the original, and it’s equally as good for a low-key date night.

Out in Astoria, Trattoria L’Incontro is a ridiculous place: the waiters wear earpieces, and everything is over the top. The restaurant is basically what you’d imagine Little Italy in Long Island to be. This also means it’s a lot of fun.

A casual Italian go-to in the Carroll Gardens area. There’s nothing incredibly notable about this place, but that’s the point – and the food is always fresh.

oregano imageoverride image


$$$$(718) 599-5988
Hours:MONDAY5:00PM to 11:00PM

One of the actually-good restaurants right by DisneyBrooklyn’s main entrance gate: the Bedford L stop. Like many of the restaurants on this list, this is a good spot for a casual dinner or date. There’s plenty on the menu, but the handmade pastas are where it’s at. Sadly, Oregano’s no longer BYOB, but the back garden makes up for it.

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