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Top Italian restaurants in Southern California

Photo courtesy of Obicà Mozzarella Bar, Pizza e Cucina

Neighborhood hangout? A classic with Sinatra? Stylish? These oh-so delizioso eateries dish up the best of Italian cuisine in the Southland.

Bettina, Montecito

Bettina Pizza

Photo by Chuck Place

Bettina is the kind of neighborhood hangout that makes other neighborhoods jealous. Located in the Montecito Country Mart, it’s a beloved spot to meet up for a Venetian Spritz at the marble bar and then slide into a lunch or dinner that revolves around perfect Neapolitan-style pizzas.

Husband-and-wife owners Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan honed their skills in New York, where Smith headed up the bread program at the highly regarded pizzeria Roberta’s in Brooklyn and Greenspan sourced specialty ingredients for A-list restaurants. They later ran Autostrada, a mobile wood-fired pizza catering business in the Santa Barbara area. 

This hip, cozy restaurant bustles with a mix of well-heeled regulars, families, and date-night couples. The menu lends itself to sharing, so nosh on small plates while pondering the pizzas. Try the cacio e pepe arancini (fried risotto balls) with Calabrian chiles or meatballs al forno with harissa tomato sauce served with house-made focaccia. 

Pizzas, made with Smith’s naturally leavened, slow-fermented dough, are dressed with inventive farmers market–driven toppings and fired up with a fabulous charred, blistered crust. (There’s also a gluten-free crust.) The menu changes frequently and seasonally, but the heavenly pepperoni with house-made mozzarella, crushed tomato, and drizzles of chile oil and Hollister Ranch honey is a keeper.

On our most recent visit, pizza with roasted cauliflower, ’nduja (spicy, spreadable Italian pork salumi), mozzarella, crushed tomato, mint, and pecorino was a stunner. Pair your pizza with the simple, fresh Baby Gem lettuce salad with ranch, pickled onion, and goat cheddar. And dolce? Try the olive oil cake with orange zest, thyme, and panna cotta. 

—Nancy Ransohoff

Bacari G.D.L., Glendale


Photo by Vanessa Stump

Shopping can be a tiring and thirst-inducing business, and no one knows that better than mall developers. In addition to a bunch of marquee-name restaurant tenants, Glendale’s Americana at Brand shopping center has Bacari G.D.L., a wine bar and small-plates eatery from the folks who own Bacaro L.A. and Nature’s Brew in downtown L.A., and Bacari P.D.R. in Playa del Rey. 

(Bacari G.D.L. fronts on Brand Avenue, so those who think mall restaurants are uncool can enter without setting foot in the shopping area.)

Its menu gives lip service to the idea of cicchetti (chee-keht-tee), the Venetian small plates, but there’s little here that reminds me of Venice, Italy. Bacari’s fare is thoroughly in tune with local dining trends. Tons of vegetables? Check. Pizzas with eclectic toppings? Got it. Sous vide egg? Present and accounted for. Salumi platter? Sure. Mac-and-cheese? Of course. Bacon (an extra $2) liberally sprinkled throughout? Yes, sir! 

It sounds as though I’m making fun of Bacari, but it’s one of my favorite spots. Nearly everything I’ve had has been terrific. You’ll see the Bacari french fries on most tables, and there’s a reason: Spicily sauced and topped with a fried egg, the fries are incredibly good and practically a meal in and of themselves. The pizzas are outstanding. The burger is juicy.

In addition to the snacky treats, there are plenty of more substantial options, from fresh seafood and pasta to beef, pork, and poultry. In short, Executive Chef Lior Hillel has figured out what we want to eat right now and has put it on the menu at Bacari. See you there. I’ll be the one surrounded by shopping bags.

—Jean T. Barrett

North Italia, Irvine

North Italia

Photo by Alan de Herrera

A collection of luxury cars encircles North Italia, badges of status that descend upon the restaurant from Irvine’s innumerable condos and office buildings. The thrum of conversation spills from beyond the restaurant’s red doors: men in crisp suits talking trades, roundtables of women examining the day’s work, couples airing department store grievances. But the well-heeled scene inside the airy, modern rustic dining room belies its everyman charms.

North Italia comes to us from Fox Restaurant Concepts, an Arizona-based group responsible for True Food Kitchen. It’s no surprise, then, that North Italia has a certain professional polish. But the restaurant is not corporate or characterless. Rather, it aims for broad appeal. 

The menu ostensibly draws inspiration from northern Italian cooking, but the restaurant is less rigorously regional than it is a generalized interpretation of Italian cuisine. That doesn’t diminish the meatballs, plump and tender and submerged in a flavorful marinara. The fantastic seasonal roasted green vegetable salad features rafts of lettuce, cubes of avocado, nubs of grilled broccoli and romanesco, and crunchy Marcona almonds all kissed with a lemony vinaigrette and blanketed under a drift of shaved Grana Padano. 

Pastas are made daily—and they’re quite good. The radiatori—a squiggly, ribbed pasta that resembles a radiator—is crowned with braised short ribs and slicked with Parmesan cream and horseradish. Try the strozzapreti, too, a thinner, longer cavatelli paired with chicken and roasted mushrooms.

Sharing is the best way to dine here, but the restaurant also accommodates smaller-scale sharing by portioning pastas and entrées (try the seared scallops) into miniaturized versions for each party. 

There are pizzas, of course, admirable iterations of wood-fired pies that nevertheless fall short of Orange County’s best. But make sure to save room for the dark chocolate torta: a wedge of dense ganache topped with a quenelle of Nutella mousse and served with salty caramel and pecan toffee. This is as decadent as it gets.

—Miles Clements

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