For more than a century New York has been awash in Italian restaurants, from Barbetta in the theatre district, to Gargiulo's in Coney Island, to Mario's on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to Parkside in Corona Heights, Queens. And for almost that long New Yorkers have been arguing about which Italian restaurant is the best. Of course chef/restaurateurs like Mario Batali have in the last ten years redefined the New York Italian restaurant (both the food and the experience). In fact people like Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich, Lydia Bastianich (Felidia) and Tony May (San Domenico) have raised the Italian food bar considerably higher.
So I've been thinking a great deal lately about what are the city's top five Italian restaurants, and I've decided that these are the contenders, in alphabetical order:
Al Di La
Esca (full disclosure: I've written a cookbook with Esca chef/partner Dave Pasternack)
Il Mulino (I've never even had a good meal there, but other people seem to really like it)
Scalini Fedeli (also never been, but I've received some good reports)
A couple of things I immediately notice when I look at this list. None of the old-fashioned southern Italian-American red sauce joints outside Manhattan even made the list of contenders. That doesn't mean you cannot get a good meal at places like Tommaso's in Brooklyn and Don Peppe in South Ozone Park, Queens, or even Rao's in East Harlem. It's just that the food at those places really doesn't measure up to the places on the list.
Next week I will post about moderately priced Italian restaurants.