Best Italian Dining in Santa Barbara: Wine, Spaghetti and Even Gelato
By Geneva Ives
Santa Barbara Local Expert
Santa Barbara’s Mediterranean influences extend far beyond the red tile roofs and balmy gardens, right onto our dinner (and lunch) plates. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the plethora of Italian restaurants dotting our streets. From small Mom and Pop counter hideaways to fancy white linen and silver affairs, Santa Barbara’s Italian eateries run the gamut.
Downtown Santa Barbara boasts a multitude of dining options for pasta lovers. On fair evenings, try to get a seat on Bucatini’s patio for an al fresco dinner right in the center of the action. Or, for a little ambience no matter what the weather, try the Chase Bar & Grill; thousands of twinkling, white lights decorate the interior, creating a magical and romantic glow.
If you happen to be visiting Montecito - our ritzy neighbor just 10 minutes south of Santa Barbara - you will find many other great Italian restaurants. Sit down for a special meal at Pan e Vino or visit its sister restaurant, Via Vai, for a more laid back experience. Tre Lune also serves breakfast; its terrace is a prime location for a cup of espresso and a little game of spot-the-celebrity.
But, with all of these choices, how do you choose the best restaurant for you? You’ve come to the right place. This 10Best list will help you find exactly what you’re looking for, whether it’s an authentic Italian pizza or a crisp cannoli like Grandma used to make. Now start reading so you can hurry up and make a reservation already!
10 Via Vai
From Via Vai's fantastic terrace, you can munch on savory, wood-fired pizzas while looking out to the Montecito foothills in the distance. It's a recipe for bliss, especially when you add in a pitcher of wine and a table full of friends. For more substantial fare, consider baked fish, rich pastas, broiled pork chops, rack of lamb, Italian sausages or a hearty lasagna. Families often frequent this restaurant, a more laid-back sibling of Pane e Vino. This restaurant has a warm ambience, especially in the evenings, just make sure to arrive early for an outdoor table. Free parking right out front. (805-565-9393)
9 Pane e Vino
Opened in 1988, Pane e Vino was the first Italian restaurant in Montecito and remains under original ownership, resulting in an eatery that has a long and happy history with local residents. Fashioned from impeccable ingredients, Pane e Vino's northern Italian dishes are both deceptively simple and deliciously complex. Fresh fish from local waters benefit from a quick grill, and homemade wheat pastas are fragrant with herbs and aromatics. Naturally grown beef and poultry round out the menu. Local and Italian wines are available. All desserts are crafted on site, so make sure you leave room for a sweet treat! (805-969-9274)
8 Trattoria Vittoria
For a cozy Italian dinner in an intimate but animated setting, make a reservation at Trattoria Vittoria. All of your favorites dishes are waiting for you: penne arrabiata, spaghetti al pomodoro, lasagna al ragu... the list goes on and on. The gnocchi is perfectly pillowy, and the calamari fritti is, quite possibly, the best in town. Order a specialty cocktail from the full bar or choose something off of the extensive wine list to complement your meal. Located at the upper end of downtown, near residential neighborhoods, Trattoria Vittoria has a very loyal local clientele. Park in the city lot to the rear of the restaurant, on the street or ride your bike! ((805) 962-5014)
Bucatini is an Italian trattoria and pizzeria located in the heart of Santa Barbara's downtown district. Serving lunch and dinner seven days a week, Bucatini's menu includes all the great classics - minestrone, spaghetti etc. - and celebrates northern Italian fare with dishes like Salsiccia con Polenta & Peperonata (sausages with grilled polenta and stewed peppers). Bucatini's rustic, thin crust pizzas are fired in the restaurant's wood burning oven. An Italian-leaning wine list, spiced up with the occasional local offering, make for the perfect mealtime accompaniment. A large heated courtyard offers ample seating, and there is additional, more limited seating inside. (805-957-4177)
Ca' Dario is a charming neighborhood Italian restaurant with an intimate setting, tucked just one block to the side of busy downtown Santa Barbara. Born and raised in Italy, chef Dario Furlati dishes up a menu featuring savory Northern Italian fare including pastas, daily risottos and rotisserie selections, a fresh fish of the day, succulent osso buco, baked chicken and grilled meats. The wine lists includes a wide range of Italian and Californian varietals. There is also a full bar if you prefer to start or finish your evening with a cocktail. A local favorite, dinner reservations are recommended. They also have a pizza restaurant two doors down. (805-884-9419)
5 Tre Lune
From the moment you set foot inside the restaurant, Tre Lune's mission is clear: each of their patrons will walk away with a classic taste of Italy. And come back, again and again, as their many loyal customers already do. To start with, there is the decor, all warm wood and clean surfaces with nary a dusty grape leaf in sight. Black and white photos of vintage celebrities line the walls. And then there's the food. Tre Lune's menu celebrates the different regions of Italy, each dish made with the freshest components, highlighting a prestigious ingredient. Don't hesitate to ask your server for a meal suggestion or wine pairing guideline; the staff here is extremely friendly and knowledgeable. (8059692646)
4 Olio Crudo Bar
Olio Crudo Bar is the third restaurant from the team behind Santa Barbara's established Italian favorite Olio e Limone Ristorante. The crudo bar specializes in Italian seafood dishes, served raw or minimally cooked and dressed with quality olive oil, sea salt and lemon. Think of it as the Italian version of sashimi. The bar is located on a bustling side street, just door away from its sister restaurants. Cocktails, beer and wine are available to pair with your small bites. The atmosphere is chic and intimate. Olio Crudo Bar adheres to a strict first come, first served policy. Reservations are not possible. ((805) 899-2699)
3 Olio Pizzeria
Tucked away in a quiet outdoor shopping area off busy State St., Olio Pizzeria is a local haven - the place to go for a light snack, drinks with friends, or even a decadent, authentic Italian pizza experience. Appetizers include artisanal salumis, aged cheeses, and crostini topped with all manner of regional delicacies, from guanciale to ricotta and cherries. Pizzas are handcrafted to order then cooked while you wait in a wood fired brick oven. The full bar boasts a unique cocktail menu heavy on Italian classics like Campari, amaro, and prosecco. Book early to secure private dining for large parties. Visit Olio e Limone Ristorante around the corner for a fine dining experience brought to you by the same team. ((805) 899-2699)
2 Olio e Limone
This accomplished Italian restaurant receives constant kudos for its authentic, yet inventive cuisine. Husband and wife team Alberto and elaine Morello opened Olio e Limone Ristorante in 1999 with the goal of providing Santa Barbara with creative, authentic Italian fare in an inviting setting. Fresh flavor combinations featuring locally grown ingredients abound. The menu features everything from ravioli with roasted eggplant and goat cheese to fresh fish, rack of veal, roasted quail, free-range chicken and veal scaloppine with lemon and artichokes. Olio E Limone's extensive wine list boasts local vintages and Italian selections. A small room is available to reserve for private dining. (805-899-2699)
1 Via Maestra 42
Tucked away on landlocked upper State St. is a gem of an Italian eatery, Via Maestra 42. The restaurant is very small and, at first glance, barely resembles a restaurant at all. There are freezers full of Italian delicacies, a gelato counter, cases of tasty take away items and a few tables inside (there are also a couple of tables outside). Do not let this casual appearance affect your decision to eat here. Settle in and wait for a seat - it can be very crowded - and your tastebuds will be rewarded. Every dish is delicious and authentic. Portions are small, more European than American, so start with an antipasti. And, whatever you do, save room for dessert: Via Maestra 42's classic Italian desserts - cannolis, tarts and more - can't be topped. ((805) 569-6522)
About Geneva Ives
Geneva Ives moved to Santa Barbara in 2000 on a whim (ok, and to go to college) and never looked back. She loves Santa Barbara because it’s really one of America’s greatest small towns - it just happens to have glorious beaches and celebrity residents, too! Geneva spent a decade managing an adorable, locally owned boutique in downtown Santa Barbara and met her husband when he was working as a waiter at the Cajun restaurant right next door. Together they go on many adventures trying to find the best activities, drinks and dining experiences in the tri-county area.
Read more about Geneva Ives here.