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Best Italian restaurants in the U.S.

Sep. 7, 2012 at 6:50 PM ET

Courtesy of Frasca Food & Wine via Travel + Leisure /
Frasca in Boulder, Colo., is based on the neighborhood restaurants in the subalpine region of northeast Italy — informal gathering places inspired by the cuisine and culture of Friuli.

“There are two kinds of people in the world,” chef Mario Batali said recently at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., “those who are Italian, and those who wish they were Italian.”

Slideshow: See the best Italian restaurants in the U.S.

No wonder: Italian restaurants across America are raising the bar. Think of all the Neapolitan pizzerias opened in the past decade, the focus on handmade pastas and authentic ingredients, and hip concepts like Torrisi Italian Specialties, which put New York’s Little Italy back on the serious foodie’s map. Consider the success of Batali himself: his Del Posto is the first four-star Italian restaurant in New York since 1974, and his emporium Eataly teems with both locals and tourists.

Just when you think Italian can’t get any hotter, it does. So what are America’s best Italian restaurants? And should four-star restaurants be considered alongside exemplary pizzerias like Frank Pepe in New Haven, Conn., and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix? Heck, yes. For an Italian restaurant to be considered truly great, it should do what it does best.

At Trattoria Lucca, which opened in Charleston, S.C., in 2008, that means dishes that showcase fresh local seafood, from the crudo of grouper to homemade ricotta cavatelli with flounder in a shellfish broth. For a truly special treat, time your visit to the Monday evening family supper, a communal seating during which chef Ken Vedrinski serves a four-course prix fixe menu for $38.

While there’s a charm to old-school places like Bamonte’s in Brooklyn, we skewed to innovative recent arrivals like Trattoria Lucca and to longtime restaurants that have upped their game beyond the red-sauce standards, such as Chicago’s romantic Spiaggia, overlooking Lake Michigan, and San Francisco’s Acquerello, where the tasting menu might include ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala sauce with black truffles.

Some of our favorite Italian restaurants made their reputations on outstanding wine lists. Others go beyond Tuscan or Roman cuisine to acquaint diners with the pleasures of culinary traditions from, say, Italy’s northeastern Friuli region — the driving influence at Frasca in Boulder, Colo., where a visit begins with addictive grissini, pencil-size crispy breadsticks.

What’s certain is that each of these 20 Italian restaurants is a destination worth checking off your list.

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