What's the best Italian restaurant in town? It's hard to answer that, not only because there are so many, and so many that serve amazing food, but because they are so different from each other. So I'm really not trying to weasel out of a recommendation when I say "it depends." I hate to send someone to Nicola's if what they really want is a huge plate of pasta with meaty tomato sauce. Or suggesting Scotti's kitsch to someone just back from a trip to Tuscany.
Are you looking for a cheap feed or a fine-dining experience? Do you want to try something new, or do you think a restaurant should have been in place a few decades before it can be judged "best"?
Any of those ways, you're in luck. There are Italian restaurants in Cincinnati that have been around since the Depression and earlier, and there are plenty that have opened in the past couple of years.
Generally, the oldest restaurants are the most Italian-American and the newest eateries are trying hardest to re-create "authentic" Italian cooking.
That change in cooking style corresponds with historical trends: when the first Italians immigrated here, they made do without the availability of ingredients from the old country. But with increased availability of imported food, and increasing travel by Americans to Italy, a "new" kind of Italian restaurant evolved. In some ways, the more authentic the food is at an Italian restaurant, the more modern it feels.
I have divided these restaurants that I've named to the Cincinnati Italian Restaurant Hall of Fame into categories. (Note: "Pizza" is not a category. It has its own Hall of Fame.)
Most Painstakingly Authentic: Sotto
This is not your grandmother's spaghetti and meatballs. But it could be your great-great-grandmother's cacio e pepe pasta. Sotto gets back to the classics of the homeland. The pasta is made by hand in a room with a big glass window, the Florentine steak is cooked over an open wood fire and the atmosphere is a low-lit romantic ruin.
From my May 2013 review: "Sotto serves super-traditional Italian trattoria fare, a cuisine that honors simplicity above all else, owner David Falk's goal for this project close to his heart. A plate of food here - served unadorned, with no garnish, no plate architecture, often no more than a couple of ingredients put together - speaks very quietly. If you focus your attention on it when you eat, then it speaks up for itself quite eloquently."
Try the bruschetta. And some time before you die, get the steak. It's $70, but is meant to be split with a friend. The owner touts the lumache all'amatriciana as a specialty. Eat it at a rustic table in a corner lit by candelabra. (By the way, I'm not considering Sotto's upstairs neighbor Boca an Italian restaurant.)
118 E. 6th St., Downtown. 513-977-6886
Best Upscale Fine-Dining: Nicola's
Though Italian is often thought of as a rustic, ingredient-driven, simple cuisine (see Sotto), it can be as refined as a chef wants to make it. At Nicola's, there are dishes that you might not even think of as Italian, what with their little bits of puree and foam. It's Italian merged with French techniques for dishes such as duck breast with sweet potato, hen of the woods mushroom, cabbage and duck confit.
But it's built around an Italian heart, and their pasta and gnocchi and Bolognese sauce are justly beloved. The atmosphere is elegant and the service polished. You know they're good because they've done business at their unlikely location of Sycamore and Liberty for 17 years.
1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-721-6200
Best Ties to Italian Heritage: Pompilios
Greater Cincinnati has such a German character that the local history of Italian immigration is not as well-known. But there were several neighborhoods where immigrants from Calabria, Sicily and Abruzzi settled in tight-knit communities between about 1887 and 1924.
In Newport, Little Italy was known as "Spaghetti Knob." Pompilios, which opened in 1933, was part of that rich community, and of the free-wheeling nightlife that later developed nearby. There are still bocce ball leagues there, and the restaurant, especially its front bar room, maintains a remarkably evocative sense of the past.
The menu does, too, with its minestrone, eggplant Parmigiana and bucatini all'Amatriciana, but there are some more modern choices like linguine primavera, toasted ravioli and Pomp's Buffalo chicken wings.
600 Washington Ave., Newport. 859-581-3065
Best Italian-American Traditional: Scotti's
I first visited Scotti's about 30 years ago, and I remember thinking it was so untrendy, so square, that I was a little embarrassed for it. But over the years, I have come to appreciate what a gem it is with its free-form tiling job, its old Chianti bottle collection, opera soundtrack and its dishes named for icons like Toscanini and Caruso.
And it has been in business for more than 100 years, since Salvatore Scoleri moved here from Philadelphia. If that doesn't get you in the Hall of Fame, what would?
Scotti's was known for years for the two sisters who ran it, forcing people to finish their meals and kicking out customers who didn't meet their standards of behavior. The three siblings who run it now inherited their grandmother and great-aunt's plain-talking, proprietary ways, but they would never be rude to a customer. And their meat sauce, with or without meatballs, mushrooms or chicken livers, is delicious.
919 Vine St., Downtown. 513-721-9484
Best Modern: Via Vite
Italian restaurants have long evoked the rustic countryside with checked tablecloths, straw-covered Chianti bottles and strings of plastic grapes. But what about urban Italy, the Italy of fashion and sports cars and modern design? That's the look of Via Vite, in its glass-walled dining room overlooking Fountain Square.
At its heart is a traditional Italian menu, however, with some of the best pizza you'll find in town, delicious veal and ricotta meatballs, butternut squash ravioli, braised lamb shank with polenta and owner Cristian Pietoso's grandmother's peperonata.
They serve one of my favorite brunches, and drinks on the deck or piazza are very moderna.
520 Vine St., Downtown. 513-721-8483
Most Romantic: Primavista
What makes a restaurant romantic? Well, one way is being up high above the city and looking out the window at a view. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but it's well-known. You can feel the phenomenon at Primavista, on top of Price Hill, with a view that makes Downtown look like a faraway enchanted city.
From my 2008 review: "While its menu and service are in the fine-dining category, it's also a great place for a table of friends to sit down to big plates of spaghetti and delicious veal meatballs. In business for almost 20 years, Primavista is still relevant, as the menu is freshened from the deep well of Italian food, both modern and classic."
It may be old hat now, but the roasted garlic to spread on bread is still addictively delicious and doesn't even ruin the romantic aspect of dinner. The mushroom risotto is a treat. The fabulous lobster pasta is gone, but you can still order fish with lobster in lobster sauce - and you should.
810 Matson Place, Price Hill. 513-251-6467
Best Neighborhood Italian: Pitrelli's
Every community ought to have a friendly spot where you have a regular order, are known by name, and run into folks you know. An Italian restaurant is great for this, since everybody loves Italian and it's not too expensive to eat on the odd Wednesday night. In Mason, this restaurant is Pitrelli's, which was started by two former teachers.
From my June 2006 review: "Pitrelli's just keeps on mom-and-popping away. It is one of the businesses that makes Mason feel like a community, and it will be appreciated by anyone who likes friendly service and homemade food."
The sauce came before the restaurant, and it's available to buy by the jar. Or have it served on a variety of pasta shapes and filled pastas. There are also whole wheat and gluten-free options to go with pizza, calzones, salads, eggplant Parmesan and other entrees.
404 Second Ave., Mason. 513-770-0122
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.