It can sometimes be hard for even the most dedicated gastronauts to keep up with all the changes happening in Philly’s restaurant scene. And when it comes to Italian food — where we change so fast and so fundamentally that entire neighborhoods can turn over from one month to the next — it’s almost impossible.
What you need is a guide. A list of places to eat right now. And we’re here to help. Below is a list of the Italian restaurants that matter most in Philly right now — the best, the newest, the most interesting, and those that have recently gone through some major changes. They’re in no particular order, but every single one of them is worth your time and attention.
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Fishtown
Look, if you haven’t already eaten here, there’s just something wrong with you. Because yes, it is that good. It’s one of those restaurant that became indispensable almost the minute it opened–a perfect neighborhood restaurant that’s also a valid destination from anywhere in the region. Chef Chris Painter’s pastas are extraordinary, the pizzas coming from the big wood-fired oven in the back are among the best in the city, the bar is comfortable, casual and cool all at the same time, and the restaurant even smells better than any place else in the city. If you’re serious about understanding Philly’s dining scene in all its modern permutations, Mulherin’s is just one of those places you have to experience for yourself, so if you haven’t been, go right now.
Brigantessa, East Passyunk
Chef Joe Cicala’s casual, approachable pizza-and-pasta joint has always been a dependable go-to in South Philly. But recently, he and his crew have been upping the stakes with events and menu changes that have kept it in the forefront of Philly’s new guard of Italian specialists. There’s a bottomless cocktail brunch happening on the weekends, a series of events and collaborations like a family meal with Sam Jacobson from Stargazy and an Underground Pizza Party that features pies from Brigantessa’s “secret” pizza menu.
Res Ipsa, Rittenhouse
Res Ipsa is technically an all-day cafe. It serves coffee, pastries and really good breakfast sandwiches in the morning, soups and sandwiches at lunch. But what it really is, is a small, spare, simple breakfast and lunch place which hosts a killer pop-up Sicilian BYO five nights a week courtesy of chef Michael Vincent Ferreri. From the fantastic grill-charred octopus with squid ink agrodolce to the brilliant gnocchi and the egg-filled raviolo that sometimes hits the specials menu, it is a place which strips all the pretension from Italian dining (both the checked-tablecloth traditionalism and the white tablecloth fanciness) and replaces it with a purity of cuisine that is stunning to witness.
A Mano, Fairmount
There’s something respectable about a place that focuses so singularly on the food coming out of the kitchen that, once it hits your table, nothing else seems to matter. A Mano is exactly that kind of place–a high-gloss Italian BYO which mixes the regional and the hyper-traditional with modern design and ingredients to create dishes which are both rustic and upscale at the same time. The kitchen turns braised pork shank into a work of art, and a simple parsley cavatelli into a deep and rich exploration of the crossing point of Italian ingredients and French technique. A Mano is small, loud, often crowded, but absolutely worth a visit if you want to see the cutting edge of intellectual Italian cuisine in Philly.
Vetri, Market East
The greatest thing about Vetri? It is the best Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, and has been for a very long time. The second greatest thing? It has never taken that ranking for granted. Vetri’s big magic is that the restaurant never sits still. It never rests. There’s always something happening there — whether it’s classes on pasta and pizza-making in the upstairs dining room hosted by Brad Spence or Marc Vetri himself, or wine dinners featuring winemakers brought in from Italy. And beyond all that, the kitchen remains groundbreaking in their menus and the staff set the standard for hospitality in a city that too often forgets what that word means.
Palizzi Social Club, South Philly
This place is just magic. An impossible Italian Brigadoon full of beans and greens, Louis Prima music, martinis and crab spaghetti. This semi-private, members-only Italian supper club in South Philly could have been a complete disaster–too exclusive, too precious, too rules-bound. But instead, Baldino and his team walked an almost impossibly narrow line and created a place where time seems to stop, friends always show up and the kitchen creates classic Italian comfort food that’s so simple and so perfect that it’s like the kitchen is run by a team of Italian grandmothers rather than award-winning chef Joey Baldino, whose family had been members of the Palizzi Social Club for generations before Joey opened the membership up to the public.
Murph’s Bar, Fishtown
Yeah, that’s right. The Fishtown Irish bar with the (not really) secret Italian kitchen operating out of the back. This place is still kind of a mystery to a lot of people, but here’s how it works: The chef, Francesco Bellastelli, rents the kitchen space from Murph’s and serves dinner six nights a week to a cash-only crowd large enough (and with a dining room small enough) that waits can often hit 90 minutes. The food is amazing. The juxtaposition of Murph’s very Irish bar and its very Italian kitchen is so Philly that it almost seems like a joke. But it isn’t. It’s the real deal. So if you’re in the neighborhood, just look for Murph’s big shamrock sign, be ready to wait with a Guinness at the bar, and get ready for what has to be the best Italian restaurant operating out of a neighborhood Irish pub anywhere in the country.
Little Nonna’s, Midtown Village
The Italian restaurant from Marcie Turney and Val Safran hit big when it opened in Midtown Village a few years back. It was doing classic, red-gravy Italian with a modern sensibility, in a space designed for maximum comfort, plus a beautiful outdoor patio. But lately, Nonna’s has come back into the news with the addition of chef de cuisine Paul Lyons to the staff. Lyons (ex of Good King, but also Turney and Safran’s Barbuzzo and Jamonera) has re-done the menu somewhat, and brought a new life to the line–which is exactly what Nonna’s needed as we come into another summer season and a roster full of serious Italian contenders.
Panorama, Old City
Sure, you probably know the name (or maybe remember it as Ristorante Panorama), but the Panorama you’re thinking of is SO 2015. A recent chef change (Mathew Gentile, ex of Ela and Lacroix, replacing the former chef, who’d been there for decades), a million-dollar renovation, and a new menu focused on local sourcing and modern flavors over tired out pasta trios have re-invigorated this venerable spot and turned it into a restaurant deserving of a return visit. Oh, and for you wine nerds out there, have no fear. The massive by-the-glass system that kept Ristorante Panorama humming even through its laziest years is still there and still offers some amazing opportunities for those who care as much about what’s in their glass as what’s on their plate.