Parm and Beyond: The Best Red-Sauce Restaurants in the Country
Track down chicken Parm, spaghetti with meatballs, and more Italian-American favorites.
Revel in Red Sauce
They may not be authentic-of-Italy Italian food, but giant plates of chicken Parmesan and bowls of spaghetti doused with marinara are some of the country's most-popular dishes. These Italian-American spots — often referred to as "red sauce" joints — serve heaping portions, often topped with their own red sauce made from a recipe passed down through generations. Dim lights, white tablecloths and some serious history complement the indulgent dishes you'll find at these top spots across the country.
Carlsbad, California: Spirito's Italian Diner
Don't let the California location fool you: This is true East Coast-style Italian on the West Coast. Anthony Spirito brought his grandfather's legacy for great food from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to this beach town north of San Diego. The kitchen turns out giant portions of chicken limone, Parm and massive ravioli (made only once a week, so when it's gone, it's gone), along with hulking meatballs, and bubbly pizzas made with dough that's prepared twice daily.
Kansas City, Missouri: Anthony's
Passed down from generation to generation, this Kansas City staple is now run by Anthony III, who would make his ancestors proud with his takes on authentic family recipes. Most dishes are served with Anthony's signature sugo, a tomato-based sauce that is made fresh each morning. Murals of Italy decorate the walls, helping to set the mood, and Frank Sinatra can be heard through the speakers outside, so there's a retro appeal before even setting foot inside.
Wilmington, Delaware: Mrs. Robino's
This family-owned Delaware restaurant has served homestyle Italian food since 1940. Mrs. Tersilla Robino first served her now-legendary Italian food outside her house, then moved to a small space that is now the entrance of the restaurant. Today her family serves her original recipes in a dining room full of old black-and-white family photos. Dishes include the famous Tour of Italy, which combines spaghetti, meat ravioli and cheese ravioli, all topped with giant meatballs and chunks of sausage. The Veal Spizzato, served over housemade spaghetti and red sauce, is another local favorite.
Los Angeles: Dan Tana's
Since the early 1960s, tuxedo-clad waiters at this L.A. legend have dished out Italian grub to tables of families (and celebrities) sitting in oxblood leather banquettes with checkered tablecloths and Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling. The celebrity draw has been so strong that a few dishes are named after them, like the Penne Arabiata, a la Michael Kane. The almost-table-size chicken Parm lures many to the restaurant, which is charmingly set in a little yellow house.
What started as a steakhouse and late-night spot evolved into one of Akron's most-famed Italian restaurants when the staff realized that customers were descending for the Italian specialties rather than the meats. Luigi's changed focus to baked pastas with red sauce and whole-milk mozzarella and its famous Italian tossed salad with homemade Italian dressing, piled high with shredded cheese upon request. The atmosphere is no frills: Old bowling photos and trophies adorn the walls, and there's a mural of Italy toward the back.
Philadelphia: Dante & Luigi's
Established in 1899, this Italian Market District staple is a Philadelphia landmark and one of the oldest still-operating Italian restaurants in the United States. The current space spans two converted townhouses, with many of the buildings' finishings restored to their original aesthetic. Every component is handmade, including the stocks and the croutons in the salads. The pasta with Italian gravy is a true labor of love: Made with veal, pork and beef, it's simmered for seven hours in a gigantic pot, resulting in a meaty, rich sauce.
Hoboken, New Jersey: Augustino's
This cash-only intimate Jersey-style spot is a favorite — so much so that advanced reservations for the tiny space are a must. The meal starts with a bright tomato-and-onion bruschetta to whet the appetite. The dining room feels like Nona's living room; it's decorated for big holidays with lights and signs, and it's occupied by servers who have been around for decades and greet regulars like family. Portions are massive, including pork chops with hot peppers and steak pizzaiolo. The chicken Parmesan — a house favorite — overtakes the whole plate, with thinly pounded chicken breasts slathered with traditional red sauce and mounds of melted mozzarella.
Philadelphia: Villa di Roma
This lauded East Coast spot dishes up red sauce so popular it’s even jarred to sell at the restaurant. The chefs at this Italian market spot know their way around a marinara, serving it up on signature baked ziti dishes and on top of hand-packed meatballs. Word on the street is the waitresses are just as saucy, adding a little East Coast attitude, albeit friendly service, to the mix.
Indianapolis: Mama Carolla's
This quaint Indianapolis Old-World Italian spot feels like walking into an Italian grandmother's house. The restaurant, which is actually housed in an old model home, serves up many a red-sauce dish, including house specialties like manicotti (stuffed with ricotta and covered in sauce) and their hearty rosemary chicken lasagna with a tomato butter sauce.
Although the restaurant now has multiple locations in Boston, the original North End location of Giacomo's, in Boston's Italian district, still packs the house every night with lines rounding the block. The tiny cash-only, no-reservation spot combines two of Boston's finest dishes, serving some of the best seafood pasta in town: housemade fusilli loaded with lobster, shrimp and clams. There are several different sauces, but the most popular are the namesake Giacomo red sauce and the spicy fra diavalo.
For more than a half-century, this Italian-American spot has served pizzas, colossal calzones and saucy pastas in a tiny hole-in-the-wall space. Here you'll find chunky vegetable minestrone and heaping portions of baked ziti with hearty meat sauce and five melted cheeses, both served with garlicky Parmesan breadsticks.
Chicago: La Scarola
You have to literally squeeze your way into this Chicago institution, which packs a hefty wait on weekend nights, but it's worth it. The manager will likely give you a shot of tequila for your patience. The walls are covered with autographed photos of celebrities and sports icons who have visited in search of the kitchen's enormous portions of chicken Vesuvio, penne alla vodka with shrimp, and spaghetti with softball-size meatballs.
The menu skews southern Italian at this lauded staple in Baltimore's Little Italy. The ingredients Aldo uses are fresh, and the dishes are made from scratch, like his pastas made with Italian "00" semolina flour and topped with hearty Bolognese or fresh clams and chile flakes. A house specialty is the Bellini cocktail, modeled after the original at Harry's Bar in Venice. The dining room nods to Italian architecture, with Roman columns and a resemblance to sunny streetside Roman cafes.