Unlike many American cities, Los Angeles never had a large Italian immigrant population. In fact, there’s no predominantly Italian neighborhood like San Francisco’s North Beach or the North End of Boston.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t terrific Italian restaurants in South California. They’re just not all concentrated in one area. Which means that no matter where you are, there’s probably one that’s not too far away.
An unassuming little place that’s nearly always packed, Angelini Osteria serves some of the best Italian food in Southern California. Start your meal with Pumpkin Tortelli with butter, sage, and asparagus or Bombolotti all’Amatriciana with guanciale, San Marzano tomatoes, and hot pepper. If you love Roman food, there’s even warm tripe. The whole sea bass encrusted in salt and herbs is sensational, and the grilled bistecca here will remind you of your trip to Florence. Lasanga Verde, a homage to the chef’s grandmother, is the most popular dish. Topped with frizzled spinach, it’s a rich, dense block of meat, pasta, and cheese. Specials each day features Italian classics like saltimbocca, oxtail, and porchetta. The wine list has lots of affordable Italian wines.
Celestino Drago has several restaurants in Los Angeles, but Drago Centro is the best Italian restaurant on the Eastside. The sleek, stylish décor and downtown City National Plaza location make this one of the most sophisticated and expensive Italian restaurants in town. No spaghetti and meatballs here. The glass wine cellar displays some of Drago’s rare Italian wines. But don’t worry — there are plenty of reasonable selections and 100 wines available by the glass. The concept here is to take traditional Italian dishes and update them with modern techniques and ingredients. The six-course tasting menu is a good value at $75 per person. Dungeness crab tagliolini with tomatoes and basil and pappardelle with roasted pheasant and morel mushrooms are achingly good. If you can, save room for the little doughnuts called I Bomboloni.
Also owned by the Drago family, Il Pastaio is a popular Beverly Hills trattoria. There are three kinds of carpaccio to start your meal — beef, tuna, and swordfish, but regulars can’t resist the fried rice balls called arancini. Mussels and clams steamed in a garlicky tomato broth taste like you‘re next to the sea. There are more than a dozen salads, including a tasty panzanella made with leftover bread. With so many pastas and risottos to choose from, most diners never make it to the Secondi section of the menu. Their panna cotta provides the perfect ending to a wonderful meal.
No discussion of Italian restaurants in Los Angeles can omit the Mozza trilogy. The brainchild of culinary stars Mario Batali, Nancy Silverton, and Joseph Bastianich, Pizzeria Mozza is actually the casual sibling of the more up-scale Osteria Mozza. But for our money, Pizzeria Mozza is the better choice. The pizzas here — baked at high temperature in a wood-burning oven — are miraculous with a thick, puffy crust that’s lighter than air. But there’s plenty of other great Italian food like fried squash blossoms, baked bone marrow, goat cheese with lentils, and oven-roasted pork ribs. Daily specials include crisp duck leg with lentils, chicken alla cacciatore, and lasagna. Make reservations or plan to wait. And don’t miss the butterscotch budino. It’s one of the most delicious desserts you’ll ever eat.
As the name implies, Trattoria Tre Venezia specializes in the cooking of Northeastern Italy. It’s tucked away in a cute little building in Old Town Pasadena. And from the outside, you’d never guess that it has been awarded a Michelin star. The dishes here are a far cry from what you’d find in Southern Italy, and Austrian influences are apparent in marinated venison and smoked pork chops with gorgonzola sauce and sauerkraut. From the Veneto region, there are seafood specialties like cuttlefish, black-ink ravioli filled with halibut, and chestnut tagliatelle with lobster. For desserts, the custards — such as Crèma del Gondoliere — are especially good.
Valentino has been the leading Italian restaurant in Los Angeles for thirty five years now. Its staying power can be attributed to attention to detail. From the elegant ambience of the four romantic dining rooms to the world-class service to the 140,000-bottle wine cellar, owner Piero Selvaggio provides an exceptional dining experience. Which explains why they have a Michelin star. The menu has delectable items like risotto with squid ink and mixed seafood, lasagna with duck ragu and porcini mushrooms, and ossobuco, but your best bet is to put yourself in the chef’s hands and order the tasting menu. Those looking for something lighter and less expensive can opt for the Vin Wine Bar, which offers an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for just $35. Affordable vertical wine tastings are also available. Dress up.
The heart of Vincenti is the wood-burning oven and rotisserie. You can watch all the action in the exhibition kitchen. Starters include a warm octopus salad, tuna carpaccio, and stuffed zucchini blossoms. Tagliolini with clams and potato gnocchi with shrimp, lobster, and asparagus are delicious. But it’s the roasted meats that steal the show. Try sea bass or Dover sole, quail, leg of lamb, or pork tenderloin. The six-course tasting menu is $60. And excellent pizzas are also available.
1) Angelini Osteria
2) Drago Centro
3) Il Pastaio
4) Pizzeria Mozza
5) Trattoria tre Venezia