The oldest Italian restaurant in the country is in Philadelphia. It predates air conditioning, vacuum cleaners, and the radio. If nothing else, that should at least demonstrate how far back the tradition of Italian food goes here. We have a ton of different spots all over the city, from the old-school South Philly red-sauce spots to newer places with indie soundtracks playing on the speakers and antipasti served in handmade ceramic bowls. What all of these 12 places on this list have in common, though, is that they’re the best places for Italian food in the entire city.
Vetri isn’t just the best Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, it’s the best restaurant in Philadelphia. It’s also going to be extremely expensive, so it works best for a special occasion. As soon as you walk in the door, you’ll get an aperol spritz on the house - which feels nice until you realize you’re shelling out $165 for the tasting menu. The meal is actually worth all that money, though, because you’ll eat around 15 courses that include the most excellent bites of pasta, cured meats, and other Italian dishes you’ve ever tasted. If you have an occasion important enough to warrant dropping a few hundred dollars on dinner, Vetri is where you should do it.
You’ll probably see a few tourists when you go to Ralph’s, but considering it’s both the oldest Italian restaurant in the country (it opened its doors in 1900) and one of the best in Philadelphia, what else can you expect? As soon as you walk through the front door, you feel like you’re stepping back in time - the wood-trimmed walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of Italy, and the floors still have the original subway tiles. All the food comes in huge portions, from the spaghetti in red gravy to shrimp scampi to one of the best veal parmesans in the city. And because all the portions are so huge, you can expect to leave with lunch for the next few days.
To eat dinner at Palizzi Social Club, you’ll need to get a membership - it only costs $20, but it takes a combination of good timing and magic to get one. If you’re lucky enough to secure a membership card, show up to the neon-lit front door with a few friends (you can bring up to three people per membership) and put your name in for a table. It’s a long process, but you’ll be rewarded with some incredible Italian food. There’s a lemony octopus, an anchovy-heavy caesar salad, and a spinach and ricotta raviolo that’s so good you’ll be thinking about it for weeks.
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons looks like a house in the Catskills that Tom Brady owns. The part-boutique hotel, part-restaurant has big, round wood tables and a fireplace in the middle of the dining room. And on top of just looking really nice, the cocktails and Italian food are also excellent. There are lots of things to choose from, but what they do best are pasta and Neapolitan pizzas - especially the double margarita pizza topped with both mozzarella and burrata.
Located in an old hardware store in South Philly, Mr. Martino’s Trattoria is exactly the kind of Italian BYOB that tourists expect. There’s homemade pasta cooked in a one-woman kitchen, tons of antique furniture, and a staff that acts like you’re a part of the family. The veal tortelloni is a must-order, and there’s an off-menu octopus appetizer with beans that you should ask about before you even look at the menu. The one problem is that it’s not exactly easy to eat here - they’re only open on weekends, and walk-in spots fill up early. You have to either get there before prime time or call for reservations on a day when they happen to be answering the phone (which isn’t often).
Barbuzzo is one of those rare places that manages to please just about anyone, and although it brands itself as largely Mediterranean, the kitchen here makes some excellent pizza, pasta, and Italian small plates. You’ll probably need to make a reservation, but the bar and chef’s counter are first-come, first-served. Start with a few negronis, order a pizza, a few plates to share (get the grilled octopus), and make sure to split the salted caramel budino for dessert.
Zeppoli technically isn’t in Philadelphia - it’s over the bridge in Collingswood - but considering it’s good enough to drive to New Jersey for, we had to include it. This Sicilian spot is tiny, with only 35 seats, but you need to go if you can get a reservation. The menu is heavy on seafood and pasta, and the spinach and ricotta gnocchi are a must-order. Plus, this spot earns the best dessert on this list with their cinnamon-sugar zeppole in a pool of dark chocolate.
Le Virtu in East Passyunk does Abruzzese food - namely, seafood pastas, cured meats, and cheeses. Some of the standouts are the lamb skewers and lump crab tagliatelle, and on Sunday and Monday nights they do a $35 tasting menu that includes an appetizer, main dish, and a glass of wine. Plus, they have a huge, vine-covered patio, so during the summer you can share a charcuterie plate and a bottle of wine with a few people you met in your amateur scrabble league.
Most Italian places in South Philly - even the OGs - feel more like tourist traps than they do old-school Italian hangouts. Villa Di Roma is the exception. Walk into this spot in the Italian Market and you’ll see pictures of customers and their families hung up on the walls and regulars who’ve been eating pasta here since it opened in the ’60s. The menu is long and has all of the things you’d expect from a red-sauce Italian spot, including meatballs in gravy, veal francese, and countless different pasta options. It’s the kind of place you want to keep to yourself and tell everyone about at the same time.
Murph’s is a dark, cash-only Irish pub in Fishtown with very good Italian food. It’s so good that people show up at 5pm on the dot to try and get one of the six tables in the back that are reserved for people ordering food. One guy cooks everything in a tiny basement kitchen, so the service can sometimes be a little slow. However, the pasta is worth waiting for, especially the lobster ravioli. A meal here probably won’t change your life as a lot of people insist it will, but you’ll certainly want to come back often for a plate of pasta.
Saloon is an Italian restaurant, but it’s also a steakhouse - one with dark wood walls and stained glass windows that make it feel like the rectory of a church. The menu skews more towards a traditional steakhouse, with things like clams casino and a petit filet served with mashed potatoes. But the Italian specialties are just as good - especially the linguine pescatore and lobster francaise.