When people are asked what their favorite type of food is, how often do you hear Italian?! Whether you're talking pizza, pasta, veal parmesan or any other Italian delicacy, there's always something for everyone when eating Italian. And more often than not, there's a LOT of it! While it's certainly easy enough to make a good sauce at home, there's nothing better than a satisfying Italian meal with a crusty loaf of bread and glass of wine. Thankfully with all the Italian transplants in the area, there are plenty of great options for us in the Triangle whether you're talking about Chapel Hill, Durham or Raleigh!
Two of the most popular Italian restaurants would have to be 411 and 518 West located in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Both locations are warm and inviting with a traditional bar, rustic interior with exposed beams and professional service. Step into the place and you'll immediately be hit by delicious aromas coming from the wood burning ovens! Pizzas and pastas are all freshly made, my favorite is the crab paparadelle served in a luscious cream sauce with scallions, bacon and lump crabmeat. Both of these restaurants also serve a great brunch and have a 50% off bottle of wines special on Monday. It's hard to go wrong with either of these places. Solid Italian food, great service in a upscale space and for not much lira; 411 and 518 West consistently deliver a relaxing dining experience.
Moving over to downtown Raleigh you'll find a wonderful little Italian spot called Gravy run by Empire Eats. This small and narrow space is lined in brick and decorated with great local art. While Gravy is not a word one automatically associates with Italian food, Chef Tony Fusco uses it to describe the home-made house red sauce which is amazingly good. Don't miss a chance to try it out even if you're wearing a white shirt; it'll be worth the dry-cleaning bill! Gravy can get awful busy and because it's not a big space, you might want to think about calling for reservations.
For starters, go with the arancini (fried risotto balls) in addition to the complimentary garlic knots. These little arancini carb bombs will happily ruin your meal because you'll probably eat far too many! We're talking about a crunchy, breaded outside, encasing wonderfully gooey fontina cheese. Dip it into the side of marinara sauce and your mouth will be marveling at the deliciousness. And while all the pasta is quite good, the basic Family Gravy plate of pennette with roasted sausage and meatball is sublime! Gravy's basic combination of great red sauce with ricotta and pasta is food simplicity but the dish totally shines in taste and texture. End your meal with Gravy's showy tiramisu dessert (ladyfingers soaked in espresso with mascarpone cheese) complete with a candied crown and you'll be in sweet, creamy and dreamy heaven...
But if you gave me one choice for Italian food I'd have to vote for my new favorite, Pop's Trattoria out in Durham! This sweet, little Italian cafe outgrew itself in its original location on W. Peabody street and moved to new digs on W. Main Street. While it's not as small and cozy as it used to be, the extra space allows for more comfortable and civilized dining. And the food, well it's as good as it used to be, maybe even better. Like many Durham restaurants, Pop's sources great local ingredients for their dishes.
For an appetizer, enjoy a heaping pile of mussels steamed in a white wine sauce with pepper flakes and roasted tomatoes, a great start to your meal. If you don't plan on having a pizza for your entree, I'd recommend ordering one up as an appetizer. Their brie and granny smith pie is deliciously unusual, a nice blend of sweet, salty and toothsome crispiness! Just try to stay away from their basket of foccacia bread or else there won't be room for the main course...
Moving on to Pop's entrees, I've had a lot of great meals here but love their famous chicken under a brick! Take a pan-fried chicken breast with roasted skin and tender juiciness, place it on top of a bed of vinagrette greens and voila! Fantastic stuff, they used to serve it over gnocchi which would have even been more amazing! Pop's pastas are all home-made, I've seen some wonderful plates come out of their kitchen. And don't forget dessert here, their fruit crisps are fantastic! Normally a berry or peach crisp covered with a scoop of vanilla gelato, yum! The brown sugar, nuts and warmed fruit makes for a delicious ending to your Pop's meal.
There's something that's so wonderfully satisfying about a good Italian meal. Maybe it's just that I'm a carb junkie but sometimes I get in the mood for pizza or pasta and nothing else will do. One other Italian restaurant I need to re-visit is Casalinga Ristorante which I once did for a wonderful lunch buffet. This place is the real Italian deal, I have to get there for dinner sometime soon. In the end, I love most Italian restaurants for a great dinner but it probably can't compare to one that's cooked at home with a LOT of love.
Many years ago, while dating a nice Italian girl, I was invited to a family Easter supper at her in-laws. And I have NEVER seen so much good food come out of a single kitchen! Trays of manicotti, bowls of pasta, grilled fish, octopus and more. We even had a ninety minute intermission in front of the TV before going back to the table and continuing on. I'm talking about a five plus hour meal that was worth every single calorie. But if you can't find a nonna to cook you a great Italian meal, give one of these restaurants a shot at taking care of your red sauce and pasta cravings. Because I will guarantee you, there's nothing better than a great Italian meal that says buono appetito!
Great Italian Restaurants in the Triangle ----------------------------------------------- 411 West- Chapel Hill 518 West- Raleigh Gravy- Raleigh Pop's- Durham