Jason Varney

Whether you're looking for a low-key bowl of pasta or a multi-course tasting menu, this list has you covered.

Markham Heid
February 26, 2018

Like its neighbor to the north, Philadelphia is a city steeped in Italian heritage. Tens of thousands of Italians immigrated to the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of better work and pay. They established robust and vibrant communities—in South Philly, mostly, but also in northwest neighborhoods like Manayunk and Germantown. In terms of the size of its Italian-American population, Philly ranks number two among U.S. cities—behind only New York.

So it’s no surprise that the city is home to a glut of great Italian restaurants. There are satisfying old “red sauce” joints where the smell of fresh garlic hits you a block away, and there are nationally acclaimed chefs lifting Italian cuisine to new culinary heights. Whatever kind of Italian you’re in the mood for, Philly has you covered. And so does this list of the city’s go-to spots.

Wm. Mulherin’s Sons

If one restaurant (and boutique hotel) showcases all the best aspects of Philadelphia in 2018, it’s this Fishtown fave-rave. Opened in 2016 and named after the historic building it occupies—once the headquarters of a local whiskey magnate—Mulherin’s calls itself “a rustic Italian-influenced neighborhood joint.” That’s an undersell. The pastas here are exceptional—at once fresh, surprising, and comforting. The cocktails, pizzas, desserts and service are all first-rate, and the brick-and-wood space is as tasteful as it is inviting.

Palizzi Social Club

Chef Joey Baldino was already a hit locally with Zeppoli, his great Collingswood, New Jersey BYOB restaurant. But after opening Palizzi Social Club last year, Baldino has earned national acclaim. And rightly so. The pasta dishes here—the raviolo, first and foremost—are close-your-eyes-and-groan delicious. And the restaurant itself—a members-only social club, founded in 1918 by one of Baldino’s relatives—is unforgettable.

Victor Cafe

While Mulherin’s and Palizzi are new spots with an eye toward the city’s history, Victor Cafe is a piece of that history. Opened in 1918 as a gramophone shop but converted to a restaurant in 1933, the Victor Cafe has always been as much about music as food. That food is reliably good, and the kind of classic Italian fare we all crave but seldom find done well—dishes like Chicken Tosca, or linguine and clams. But the real draw here is the wait staff, many of whom are trained opera singers. Every 15 or 20 minutes, one of them takes a break from serving to delight diners with a live performance. Sometimes restaurant patrons take a turn. It sounds kitschy, and it is. But delightfully so.

 

Griffin DiStefano

A Mano

A Mano occupies a quiet corner of the city’s Fairmount neighborhood—a spot that’s unlikely to snare many wandering out-of-towners. That’s a shame, because this is one of Philly’s underappreciated jewels. The dining space is small and intimate, much like A Mano’s tightly focused menu of refined Italian delectables. The pasta dishes are layered with flavor, and the seafood courses—the skate wing, in particular—are wonderful. A Mano is also a BYOB. Walk in with your own wine, and you’ll enjoy one of the most affordable fine meals in the city.

Vetri

James Beard Award-winning chef Marc Vetri is a titan of fine dining in Philadelphia. He’s the city’s Thomas Keller, or Grant Achatz. And since it opened in 1998, his namesake cucina has consistently appeared on lists of the Mid-Atlantic’s (and the country’s) best restaurants. While Vetri’s elaborate, multi-course tasting menu always highlights Italian ingredients and dishes—the pasta here will probably be the best you ever taste—it draws on a broad range of culinary traditions and techniques. Vetri is outstanding.

Saloon

You could walk by Saloon a hundred times, pausing each time to admire its sculpted bar and densely decorated wood walls, and not realize it’s serving some of the best old-school, high-end Italian in the city. Its name aside, the place just doesn’t look or feel like an Italian restaurant. But from its excellent steaks to its classics like clams casino or eggplant Parmigiano, Saloon is a knockout.

Monsú

After the Liberty Bell, Philly’s famed Italian Market is the city’s most popular stop for tourists. Many end up dining at Ralph’s or Villa di Roma—two charming places that have been serving Italian staples for decades. But wander a couple blocks north on 9th Street and you’ll find Monsú, a petite cash-only BYOB serving some of the tastiest, most-affordable Italian in Philly. The dishes here—from the smoky eggplant meatballs to the ravioli stuffed with saffron risotto—aren’t adventurous, but they’re fresh and well-executed. You’ll go home full and happy.

Barbuzzo

During the last decade, the two blocks of S. 13th Street between Chestnut and Locust evolved into one of the hippest dining and shopping strips in the city. Barbuzzo, which opened in 2010, helped kick off that transformation. And there’s a reason it’s still going strong eight years later. From the excellent pizza and pastas to the charcuterie and seafood, the dishes here are well-executed and surprisingly affordable.

 

Jason Varney

Osteria

Helmed by Jeff Michaud, another of the city’s James Beard Award-winning chefs, Osteria has been an ambitious standout since it opened on North Broad Street back in 2007. The wood-grilled meats and pasta courses have long made Osteria a destination for Philly food lovers. But really, everything here is excellent.

Dante & Luigi’s

Like any venerable, self-respecting old Italian restaurant, Dante & Luigi’s has a mob hit tale in its past. (In this case, the tale is true.) Mafia bona fides aside, this white-tablecloth restaurant—opened in 1899—produces the kind of southern Italian pasta dishes that never get old, along with classics like baked manicotti and osso bucco. It’s not trying to be the latest and greatest, and that’s why it’s still so good.

Giorgio On Pine

Another excellent BYOB spot, Giorgio On Pine is the kind of restaurant everyone wants around the corner from home for unpretentious, delicious weeknight meals. Featuring a range of gluten-free and vegetarian dishes, almost everything at Giorgio is good—and some of it, like the gnocchi, is great. 

Amis

Though he’s no longer running the show, Marc Vetri launched Amis back in 2010 in order to offer the city’s diners a simpler, more-affordable take on his acclaimed Italian cooking. Ownership has changed hands a few times since then, and two new locations have since opened. But the original Amis in Washington Square West remains an excellent showcase of simple, fresh Roman-influenced cuisine. You could go once a month and never tire of this place.

Fiorino

Even some locals haven’t heard of this tucked-away spot in East Falls. That’s a shame, because Fiorino is a delight. While a quick look at the menu doesn’t feature many surprises, the dishes are bursting with flavor and prepared with a deft hand. The desserts, too, are delicious. Throw in the fact that this spot is BYOB, and it’s easily one of the best deals in the city.