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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

1014 Coast Village Road, Montecito. 805-770-2383; bettinapizzeria.com

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

Rossa’s Cucina Enoteca

425 N. Vineyard Avenue, Ontario. 909-937-1220; rossascucina.com

Rossa's Cucina Enoteca

Photo by Rob Andrew

With its crisp, white linen and classic Broadway or Sinatra tunes wafting from a grand piano in the lounge, the spirit of Rossa’s Cucina Enoteca in Ontario resides in a nostalgic, bygone era. While suitable for an anniversary celebration, Rossa’s remains approachable enough to drop in on a Tuesday for a bowl of linguine.

The menu skews conservative, with predictable starters such as calamari fritti, caprese, and soups like minestrone or lobster bisque. The beef carpaccio is loaded with capers, a minor distraction from an artistic plating of thinly sliced raw beef and ample shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, while the Caesar has a light, lemony dressing with a note of anchovy.

Pastas include a deftly prepared and generously portioned spaghetti carbonara that would benefit from a bit more of the salty, earthy pancetta to balance its richness. Ravioli stuffed with crab, shrimp, and lobster are bathed in a creamy, deceptively light lemon sauce, with finely julienned vegetables introduced for texture and crabmeat layered over the top.

The kitchen’s osso buco features braised veal that falls off a bone filled with custardy marrow, plated with sautéed vegetables and fettuccine rather than the more traditional, labor-intensive saffron risotto. Chicken is served in a white wine–butter sauce with lemon, capers, rosemary, and parsley (a play on piccata), while steak lovers gravitate to filet mignon with brandy-mushroom sauce. An interesting version of scampi features seven garlicky crustaceans in Champagne cream sauce, paired with a mountain of pasta.

The California-Argentina-Italy wine list is remarkably affordable, with bottle prices dipping into the 20s, and a couple dozen labels poured by the glass. For dessert, the kitchen turns out a solid tiramisu and near-perfect crème brûlée, with a silky custard beneath a paper-thin caramelized crust. —Roger Grody

Amici's Ristobar

The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch, 5980 Village Way, San Diego. 858-847-2740; amicisristobar.com

Amici Ristobar

Photo by Rob Andrew

Amici’s Ristobar occupies stylish premises in a master-planned development in northern San Diego. And since San Diego is usually perfect for alfresco dining, the restaurant features a spacious terrace in addition to a wraparound marble bar and an elegant dining room flanked by brick walls and expansive windows.

The Italian-themed menu has many options, but be sure to ask about the daily specials, which might include a tasty carrot and coconut curry soup. When available, the enjoyable giant raviolo is stuffed generously with spinach, ricotta, and an egg yolk that oozes out of the pasta when pierced. Topped with a sage browned-butter sauce, the raviolo is a delightful and hearty dish.

Pace yourself when it comes to the complimentary soft rolls and chewy focaccia, both baked in-house. It’s easy to indulge in the whole basket, but you’ll want to leave room for appetizers.

Try the roasted octopus, served with cannellini beans and spicy bread crumbs, or share the massive, carefully arranged antipasto board of prosciutto, speck, two kinds of salami, tangy marinated olives, and pickled vegetables.

In addition to formal entrées, Amici’s offers pizzas (the sharply flavored Calabrese stands out) and pasta selections that guests can customize. Other worthy choices include the linguine frutti di mare cartoccio, a classic dish that features a paper parcel filled with shellfish and linguine dressed with herbs, white wine, and tomato. When diners cut the paper open at the table, the cartoccio releases a heady perfume redolent of the sea. The restaurant’s asiago cheese–filled potato gnocchi receive an elaborate treatment with a topping of crab, asparagus, porcini mushrooms, and a creamy “pink” sauce. Its veal Milanese is crisp and tart, and tender braised lamb shank is served with a luxurious saffron risotto. Lusciously textured, the flourless chocolate cake, which was trendy in the 1980s and ’90s, is just as relevant today.

—David Nelson

Bacari G.D.L.

757 Americana Way, Glendale. 818-696-1460; bacarigdl.com.

Bacari's

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

Obicà Mozzarella, Bar Pizza e Cucina

8630 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood. 310-360-5983; obica.com

Obicà Mozzarella, Bar Pizza e Cucina

Photo by Vanessa Stump

When L.A.’s first Obicà opened years ago in Century City, I dismissed it because it’s part of a chain. (Yes, I cop to being a snob.) True, it’s a small chain that was founded in Rome and has only about a dozen branches around the world. But I assumed it would have the corporate dullness of most chains. Then friends wouldn’t stop raving about the branch on Sunset, and, sure enough, they were right.

Obicà’s concept is to showcase fresh cheeses flown in twice a week from Italy. Yes, you can get mozzarella in the States, but not from those particular buffalo raised on those particular southern Italian grasses and produced by those particular cheese makers. First-timers should absolutely share the Mozzarella Experience, an artful array that includes ethereal fresh ricotta with cranberries and pine nuts, mozzarella di bufala with pesto, and the most subtly flavorful smoked mozzarella I’ve ever had. 

But mozzarella is hardly the only reason to love Obicà. In this era of jam-packed, ear-splittingly loud hot spots, it manages to combine chic style and a prime Sunset Plaza location with a low-stress dining experience. It’s generally easy to get a table, even at the last minute. The Italian welcome and service are remarkably warm. The bartenders make excellent, not-too-fussy cocktails. The prices are fair. You can hear your dining companions talk. There’s even abundant free parking in back. 

None of that would matter if the food didn’t deliver, but deliver it does. Everything is prepared with a light hand (the kitchen eschews garlic and onion) yet is full of flavor. Pizzas are right out of Rome, simple and satisfying. Salads showcase ultra-fresh greens. Branzino is crisp on the outside, tender and sweet on the inside, balanced perfectly with a sauté of cherry tomatoes and green beans, snow peas, and English peas. If you have a big appetite, try the lasagna, a perfect layering of spinach pasta, a rich beef ragù, and mozzarella. To go with all this, you’ll find a solid roster of Italian wines.

What makes Obicà worth knowing about is its all-around appeal and location: It’s good for Eastside friends to meet Westside friends halfway, good before or after the theater or a concert, and good for a date. I’m happy to have found my new go-to place when I’m in West Hollywood. —Colleen Dunn Bates

North Italia

2957 Michelson Drive, Irvine. 949-629-7060; northitaliarestaurant.com

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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