When I moved to Paris in the early 2000s , Italian cuisine was certainly not a notable feature or strong point in the local food landscape. I knew of a few mediocre, albeit perfectly serviceable, pizzerias. I occasionally dined at family-style eateries where the lunch or dinner specials invariably involved bland carbonara sauce or a hunk of barely seasoned salmon piled atop slightly gummy tagliatelle. Often, cardboard-cutout chefs with potbellies and Mario-or-Luigi style bar moustaches perched outside the door, beckoning patrons in with promises of “the best cucina italiana in town”.
Needless to say, these outfits were nothing to write home about. Apart from the occasional and unremarkable pizza lunch with colleagues, Italian food wasn’t a part of my culinary experience of the city.
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But in recent years, something has visibly (and tastily) changed. As if out of nowhere, ambitious, interesting little restaurants owned and staffed by Italians started popping up around the city– most clustered in the northeast and the 11th arrondissement. Generally the brainchildren of young chefs and restaurateurs who had uprooted from their native Italy to Paris, rightly sensing the opportunity to develop a new niche, these eateries are uncompromising about quality. Ingredients– from olive oil to fiore di latte cheese and fresh tomatoes– are generally sourced straight from Italy; what all of these places equally share is a talent for creative, thoughtful twists on classic regional dishes. For vegetarians and even vegans, there are more options at most of these places than you’re used to having, which is always a boon. Read on for 4 of the best Italian restaurants in Paris (according to yours truly).
1. Come a Casa
Literally beckoning you to come “eat at home”, this cozy restaurant situated in a rather sleepy, residential corner of the nightlife-heavy 11th arrondissement has become one of my favorites for homemade Italian cooking. Opened by Roman natives Flavia Federici and her partner Gianluca Tamorri (an architect and photographer by training, respectively), the tiny bistrot is warm, accommodating and unpretentious. Rough wood tables and schoolroom-style chairs, ceilings hung with knick-knacks, and an open kitchen where you can see the chef busily preparing the dishes of the day make it impossible to feel intimidated here.
Flavia’s Roman-inspired cuisine includes many dishes adapted from her grandmother’s; the homemade pastas, lasagnes, gratins and soups that populate the daily menu are firmly based in tradition and made with local ingredients. But, she tells me, her aspiration is to inflect traditional staples with innovation- to experiment a bit, all the while maintaining the simplicity of excellent ingredients and pure flavors.
Make sure to try the daily lasagne, which has a different twist every day, and the aubergine/eggplant gratin, a warming, hearty comfort food that nevertheless gets away with seeming gourmet. The desserts, including the homemade tiramisu (pictured below) are equally delicious, and the wine list includes numerous high-quality Italian and French bottles.
Address: 7 Rue Pache, 11th arrondissement
Metro: Voltaire/Leon Blum
Tel: +33 (0)1 77 15 08 19
2. Retro Bottega
I recently discovered Retro Bottega while staying in the neighborhood, and am now hooked on the place, which operates as a wine shop and Italian grocery during the day and restaurant during lunch and dinner hours. The brainchild of another young Roman native, Pietro Russano, here is another tiny but formidable new address in the capital’s blossoming Italian cuisine-scene.
Russano, who had worked as a chef and sommelier in Italy before uprooting to Paris to try his luck there, is a constant presence at the restaurant, taking orders, doing much of the cooking and suggesting wine pairings from his impressive selection of Italian bottles, many of which are biodynamic and/or organic.
The menu is seasonal, inspired and bold, featuring unusual but perfectly complementary ingredients and eye-catching presentations. These include crab-stuffed homemade ravioli with chirrogia beets, delicate sea asparagus and toasted sesame, sausage and white bean stew, and risotto with Correze mushrooms, sage and fresh Parmesan aged for 24 months. Lunch dishes include savory, delicious options such as homemade focaccia stuffed with grilled vegetables and buffalo mozzarella.
The prices here are a bit steep at dinner and wine can only be purchased by the bottle, so this place might be best visited for a special occasion rather than a casual meal out. Reservations are welcome and recommended at Retro Bottega.
Address: 12 Rue Saint-Bernard, 11th arrondissement
Tel: +33 (0)1 74 64 17 39
3. East Mamma
This cheerful, always-packed address in the Big Mamma restaurant group doesn’t have the intimacy or the quaintness of the addresses already covered above. But the food is absolutely delicious, fresh and simple, and the warm service here made me forgot that I had to wait in line in the rain to get in. It also made me inclined to forgive the fashionista/hipster ambiance inside, where I observed numerous diners barely making a dent in their pizzas and large servings of pasta, served in cheerful copper pots. Why on earth would you waste something so delicious? I couldn’t help but ask myself. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised: the restaurant is right at the edge of the Charonne neighborhood, gentrifying at a gallop and a favorite spot for PR execs and young fashion designers to assemble after work.
But on to what’s to eat. Headed by chef Ciro Cristiano and staffed by a troop of mostly Napolitan sous-chefs and servers, East Mamma serves simple, solidly traditional pizzas, pastas, salads and desserts at reasonable prices. Ingredients are almost always sourced straight from Italy. The wood-fired Napolitan-style pizza is some of the very best I’ve had in Paris: my reigning favorite has a white base, and is decked with fiore di latte cheese, zucchini flowers, fresh tomatoes and basil. The crust is crisp yet pliable, and in true Naples fashion, the cheese, oil and sauce melt in your mouth, flavors melding beautifully. For dessert, the lemon tiramisu is perfectly tart and creamy, and a nice, summery spin on the usual.
While I haven’t yet tried the pasta, antipasti and salad options, my guess is that the quality and flavors are equally laudable. The wines are very solid, and can be purchased by the glass or bottle.
One caveat: Reservations aren’t accepted, and you’ll need to arrive 15 minutes or earlier before opening times to avoid waiting in line for minutes or up to an hour.
Address: 133 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, 11th arrondissement
Metro: Ledru Rollin or Faidherbe-Chaligny
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 41 32 15
4. Sale e Pepe
The only restaurant on my short list to not have a home in the 11th arrondissement, Sale e Pepe is a humble Italian bistrot well worth a trek up to the 18th arrondissement. Situated beyond the limits of Montmartre in an area little-explored by tourists, this restaurant has been around for a number of years, and on the radar of local foodies for just as long.
Serving some of the city’s most delicious pizzas (in the range of around 7-8 different varieties per day), homemade pasta such as orechiette (little ear-shaped noodles with a pleasing bite) smothered in red pepper cream and fresh ravioli with cope mushrooms and truffle-laced pasta, this is yet another find I’m almost reluctant to share here. Yet good restaurants close all too often in the capital, especially in neighbourhoods where visitors rarely venture to– so I’ll loosen up on the selfishness here.
The service is cheerful and warm, as is the ambiance in the small but bright dining room at the foot of Rue Ramey. And did I mention that the desserts, such as mascarpone and chocolate mousse topped with fresh raspberries, are sublime? Don’t be surprised if you see me there.
Address: 30 rue Ramey, 18th arrondissement
Metro: Jules Joffrin or Chateau Rouge
Tel: +33 (0)1 46 06 08 01