istock/philipimage"Pasta is the big tell of a great Italian restaurant," says Brian Moll, executive chef of La Tavola Trattoria, a cozy neighborhood trattoria in Atlanta. Other chefs agree that handmade pasta is the difference between a good and truly great Italian dish. "When I go to an Italian restaurant, I'm looking for handmade pastas, and I always order a classic—carbonara. I look for the eggs on top, smoked bacon, creamy sauce—everything done right. That's how I judge if it's a good spot," says Gabriel Israel, chef at the Israeli-inspired eatery Green Fig in New York City. Even the freshest handmade pasta needs a delicious sauce to make it come alive. Moll's favorite is a classic ragu, such as an aromatic bolognese, or traditional neapolitana. (You may love pasta, but please don't order it on a first date. Here's why.)
Spaghetti alla carbonara
istock/philipimageChef Israel is not the only chef who loves a good carbonara. This creamy, decadent pasta dish is a consistent favorite of chefs in-the-know who love to eat as much as they love to cook. "It is too difficult to choose just one favorite Italian dish, but I have narrowed it down to two. I love a traditional Spaghetti alla Carbonara. I prefer mine traditional—egg, black pepper, aged parmigiano-reggiano, and pancetta, or guanciale. It's a simple dish, but when it uses high-quality ingredients, it can't be beat," says corporate chef and culinary services manager of Fazoli's, Rick Petralia. His other favorite? Manicotti.
istock/AzuritaA delectable meal to eat on a cold winter's night, manicotti is best when made from hand-rolled shells. An Italian-American dish, manicotti is a cheese-lover's dream and the quintessential comfort food. "I enjoy the richness of the ricotta, and parmesan filling. At Fazoli's, our hand-rolled Manicotti Classico, is topped with marinara or meat sauce, and baked with mozzarella and provolone cheese. I always go with the meat sauce. It's my favorite item we sell, and one of my favorite Italian entrees," says Petralia.
istock/gkrphoto"A risotto is all about texture, and a great benchmark by which to judge the rest of a menu, says Tim Kensett, chef at Storico, an Italian eatery located within the New York Historical Society Museum and Library. Kensett's favorite risotto dish is saffron risotto Milanese. "A risotto is something of beauty if done properly and with love. When I was learning how to make risotto by my mentors, I was always told that you can tell a lot about a chef by the way they stir. Rice needs care, attention, and encouragement. Risotto Milanese is a classic saffron risotto, which relies heavily on a balance of flavors. Too little saffron, and you don't get the impact of the somewhat metallic floral flavor, not to mention, lack of color. Too much saffron, and the dish is instantly overpowered and ruined," he explains. If you want your risotto cooked to perfection, only order it if it is a menu staple, and not the special of the day. Many chefs warn against ordering specials if your goal is a wonderful meal.
istock/nigadisWhen you walk into a brick-oven Italian restaurant, you're immediately engulfed by that distinctive, comforting scent, and a feeling of deep, relaxation will most likely overcome you. The glass of chianti you had at the bar probably helped, but so does the anticipation of the delectable pizza you will soon be enjoying. "As boring and unassuming as it may sound, pizza margherita is what I usually order if I want to really judge the authenticity and quality of ingredients—they never lie!" says Italian-born chef and owner of Ca' Momi Osteria, Valentina Guolo Migotto. For Migotto, simple is best. "The simplest dishes are the hardest to pull off because they are made of only a few ingredients and there's not much to hide behind, no tricks. Pizza is a good example of that," she explains. Kenneth Johnson, chef at the Italian restaurant Gran Morsi also uses pizza, or some kind of flatbread (if they have a wood burning oven), as a benchmark. "I love the use of simple ingredients, of great dough, tender and crispy in the same bite, and tomatoes, savory-sweet, and seasoned with sea salt. And of course, the cheese—fresh and milky. Flashed in the oven, for no more than three minutes, finished with snipped, fresh basil, and a drizzle of olive oil." Now that's Italian-food perfection.
istock/RicksingleA sinful treat, fritto misto is deep-fried deliciousness, crafted with seafood, vegetables, or other ingredients. One of Chef Kensett's favorites, this delightful treat can also be made at home, with this easy recipe from Bon Appetit. "Most people enjoy something deep fried every now and again. If I see a fritto misto on a menu, I'm sure to give it a try," says Kensett. "This is in essence, one of the simplest of dishes. Take some fantastic ingredients, coat them in either semolina flour or a light batter, and gently fry. A good restaurant will serve a good fritto misto, because thought and technique must go into it. Is the batter light enough? Is the oil in the fryer clean? What variety of ingredients have they chosen? These are all things that separate a good fritto, from a bad one," he explains.
istock/4kodiakFor many, garlic-laced meat balls are a throw-back to the Sunday kitchens of their childhood. For others, this well-crafted, simple dish is a classic treat best enjoyed when cooked by the masters. "I always like to try out the meatballs to see if they are as good as the ones in my restaurant, which are hand rolled in marinara, with whipped ricotta and pecorino cheese," says executive chef Joseph Farina, of Armand's Victory Tap in Chicago. An old-school dish, some chefs order it only in restaurants that specialize in traditional fare. "What I order depends on the type of Italian joint I'm eating in. If it's a modern concept restaurant, I go fish or pasta, if they're making pasta in-house. If it's an old-school 'red sauce' place, I go classic: linguine with meatballs, especially if they're the four-ounce, tennis ball-sized ones," explains Chris Coleman, chef at Stoke in North Carolina. "I attribute this love of red sauce and meatballs to my family's frequent outings to the Spaghetti Warehouse when I was a kid. It's where I first fell in love with restaurants, and realized they could be more than fried fish or cafeteria-style buffets." Here are more tricks for how to stay healthy while dining out.