Best of Both Worlds: Charleston's Italian Restaurants Use Italian Traditions, Lowcountry Style
By Clare Sweeney
Charleston Local Expert
Charleston, South Carolina is known for many things: historic buildings, Revolutionary and Civil War sites, iconic forts and monuments and, of course, its seemingly endless array of top notch eateries. Though unknown to many, Charleston's only sister city is the town of Spoleto in the Umbra region of Italy. This truth may serve to explain the Holy City's adoration of Italian cuisine, and give reason to the outstanding number of high quality Italian restaurants in Charleston, a whole other continent away.
Going out for Italian is always a solid choice when looking for a varied, diverse menu to suit the whole family. Charleston's Italian restaurants can be found all over the area - in downtown's historic district, across the Cooper River in Mount Pleasant, or in the heart of plantation country on James and John's Island. Venture out to Wild Olive or Fulton Five for a romantic Italian date night, or stroll over to quiet Warren Street for a meal in Pan e Vino's softly lit outdoor garden patio and bar. For a more casual family meal, head to Bocci's - its convenient Market area location make Bocci's ideal for groups strolling the Historic City Market or returning from a carriage tour. Find yourself in lively conversation with friends and a glass of Italian Pino Noir in a quaint historic house setting at Muse on Society Street. Wherever your reservation, you'll find more Italian charm than you'd ever guessed to encounter on South Carolina's Atlantic coast.
Housed in a lovely 19th-century building, this romantic Italian restaurant's Old Country stucco walls and tiled floors are just the beginning of its charm. The authentic experience starts with sauteed mussels, calamari and a classic caprese salad. Main courses, meanwhile, include pancetta-wrapped beef tenderloin, veal marsala, shellfish fra diavolo and a range of sumptuous pastas. The outstanding wine list assures an apt complement, and the desserts are worth saving room for. (843-720-2121)
9 Wild Olive Cucina Italiana
Located on John's Island just a short drive from downtown Charleston, Wild Olive Italian Cucina is nestled into a country cottage like setting, complete with low lighting, local artist wall murals, and a majestic live oak stretching over the restaurant entrance. Chef Jaques Larson serves up traditional Italian dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from the many local farms and growers, as well as the finest imported Italian goods. Diners choose from three seating areas: a lively bar and community table, a quiet and romantic front dining room, or a back table with insightful views into the bustling Wild Olive kitchen. The menu includes such lowcountry Italian items as Ravioli stuffed with collards and cheese, ham hock, and spiced pecans, and Veal Scallopine with Marsala, Mepkin Abbey mushrooms, peas, and Parmesan mashed potatoes. Head to Wild Olive for the ideal intimate date night out. (843-737-4177)
8 MUSE Restaurant & Wine Bar
Executive chef Howard LaFour may hail from Singapore, but he is no stranger to authentic Italian cuisine. And it shows in the carefully planned menu, atmosphere, and decor of Muse Restaurant & Wine Bar. It was from the ancient Villa of Mysteries in Pomeii, Italy, that the idea of Muse Restaurant was originally inspired. Be sure to make reservations at Muse in advance - this historic home turned restaurant on Society Street is a popular local's place for eating, drinking fine wines, and lingering over intimate conversation. For starters, try the Prince Edward Island Mussels, Grilled Calamari, or Tuna Crudo, or one of Muse's creative artisan salads, like the Seared Manchego Cheese & Baby Arugula, dressed in a Blood Orange Vinaigrette. If you still have room for a main course, sample the Basil Gnudi tossed with pea tendrils in a summer squash sauce, or the Veal Scaloppini in a garlic white wine sauce over polenta. Whatever you elect, the dish will arrive elegantly presented and full of robust flavors. (843-577-1102)
7 Il Cortile Del Re
Run by a husband-wife team, Il Cortile Del Re is said to be one of the best in Charleston for authentic Tuscan cuisine. Enjoy the quaint dining rooms as well as the shaded courtyard. It's a little hard to find, so give yourself some time to get there.Conveniently located in the antiques and shopping district at perhaps the smallest storefront on Charleston's historic lower King Street, il Cortile del Re is no less than picturesque. Its charming cork framed entrance gives way to a larger than expected interior dining space, complete with vintage style furnishings and a working fireplace. Also hidden from street view is il Cortile del Re's al fresco side patio, perfect for a quiet evening out. This romantic Italian restaurant hosts happy hour from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, small and large dinner plates each evening, as well as a full bar and extensive Italian wine list. Antipasti options include Mussels alla Diavola, Beef Carpaccio, Spicy Lamb Sausage, soups, and salads Caprino, Caprese, and Italiana. For the main event, try Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, Spaghetti al Fruitti di Mare with mussels, shrimp, and scallops, or the Penne al Tre Sapore with asparagus, pancetta, and wild mushrooms. Main Carne i Pesce Meat and Seafood items include Stewed Wild Boar over pappardelle pasta, Seared Veal with mushroom demi glaze, and the fresh fish catch of the day. Reservations are recommended. (843-853-1888)
6 Al di La
Located just a few minutes drive outside of Charleston's downtown peninsula, Al Di La gives reason to venture across the Ashley, with its focus on the simple goodness that lies in the details. Handmade pasta and fresh, local ingredients are notable in the full flavors of each dish at this authentic northern Italian trattoria. The jazzy interior and patio seating make Al Di La a casual, easy going spot to grab a quick lunch al fresco, or enjoy a relaxed dinner with friends. Antipasti options include Mixed Olives, Beef Carpaccio, and Steamed Mussels with White Wine and Tarragon. Advance to the 1st course with a Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, or the Ricotta and Mascarpone Gnocchi with Shrimp, tomatoes, and basil. Secondi course items like Veal Pancetta in a pan gravy sauce and Hunter-style Chicken braised in white wine with polenta and butter beans are sure to round out a filling meal. Save room for a dolci dessert of Tiramisu, Ricotta Cheesecake, or gelato. (843-571-2321)
With its richly appointed interior, Tuscan red leather booths, and vintage Italian fixtures, Mercato provides the ideal setting for authentic Italian fare in Charleston's historic district. Conveniently located just across the street from the Charleston City Market, Mercato and chef Ben Ellsworth serve up more than just what's on the dinner menu. Join Mercato seven nights a week for cafe style live jazz, with different musicians featured each evening. Ambient music combines with dimmed interior lighting and old world Italian service and style to make Mercato the perfect place for date night or a special gathering with friends. Don't miss the nightly specials, usually a highlight of Charleston's freshest seasonal produce and seafood. Start your meal with antipasti options like Tuscan Bruschetta, Barbequed Octopus, or Mussels Genovese. For the main event, opt for traditional pizzas, pasta dishes like Shrimp Linguine with garlic and fresh chilies or Potato Gnocchi with with sausage and fennel ragu. Stick with a classic Italian favorite like Veal Parmesan, Chicken Marsala, or Lamb Osso Bucco - you won't be disappointed. Be sure to save room for dessert; the gelato is housemade with fresh Charleston fruit! (843-722-6393)
4 Osteria la Bottiglia
Osteria la Bottiglia is right at home in Charleston's upper King Street, nestled behind a small window front between Blue Bicycle Books and Trousseau wedding dress shop. Often a host to live music and wine dinners, Osteria is the creation of husband and wife team Massimiliano and Natasha Sarrocchi. The duo not only runs this authentic Italian eatery, but also owns and operates a small groups food and wine tour company, making frequent trips to Italy with customers and regular restaurant guests alike. A native Roman, Massimiliano, and his wife Natasha, bring an authenticity to the Italian restaurant scene of Charleston that goes beyond just a varied menu. Here, the food, ambiance, and caring, thoughtful service are all held to equal importance. Open every day from 5 p.m. to close, Osteria la Bottiglia also offers take out and delivery. Start your Osteria meal with your choice of Tomato Basil, Artichoke and Pecorino, Mushroom Arugula, or Goat Cheese, Spinach, and olive Bruchettas - some of the freshest in town! More starters like Sardinian style Baby Octopus and Asparagus or White Bean Rosemary soups further warm up your appetite. For your main course, there are a variety of handmade pastas, like Lobster Ravioli, Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli with Artichoke Sauce, Beef and Pork Lasagna, as well as many creative salad and vegetable plates such as Swordfish Carpaccio and traditional Caprese salad. Duck Leg Confit with Ravioli and Cornish Game Hen in Roasted Red Pepper sauce are regular favorites. (843-727-4158)
3 Pane e Vino
Almost every city hides away one special restaurant off the beaten tourist path. It is nondescript from the outside, but full of local spirit and some of the best food in town inside. Pane e Vino is just such a place, tucked away off King Street on quiet residential Warren Street, with only a chalk board to proclaim its existence there. But inside Pane e Vino, you'll discover owner Alfredo Temelini, very dedicated to his Italian family's traditions of cooking and caring service, as well as some of the best fine dining prices in town. Most entrees at Pane e Vino range from $14.50 - $23, a modest request for such an authentic menu dedicated to such vivid flavors and presentation. As with many semi-secret side street spots, Pane e Vino is a small place. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time, and ask for a table in the festively lit outdoor patio during warmer months. A meticulous attention to detail is paid to every dish on the menu, as evidenced by such interesting Antipasti starters as Funghi Fritti fried Shiitake mushrooms, the Grilled Eggplant stuffed with Buffalo Mozzarella, and the Cured and Smoked Duck Breast on Sardinian flatbread. Salads are dressed lightly with such accompaniments as Kalamata olives, local yellow and red bets, goat cheese, black fig molasses, and Cabernet vinaigrette. For the main course, try the Homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, or the Slow Roasted Duck Leg in wild mushroom cream sauce. Order the Cioppino for two to share - this Italian style seafood stew is simmered in a light tomato sauce with fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops, and lobster. Pay attention to the nightly specials, usually a highlight of which ingredients are enjoying high season in the area. (843-853-5955)
2 Fulton Five
Most truly authentic Italian eateries are oft dubbed as the most romantic place in town. Fulton Five claims this common title, but with proof - it's been named Most Romantic Restaurant in Charleston 13 years in a row! Conveniently located just off of lower King Street in the area's antiques and shopping district, Fulton Five is well known as a top notch fine dining establishment and very popular and busy on every night of the week. Be sure to make reservations in advance, and take advantage of nearby metered street parking or the small lot across Fulton Street. Fulton Five is only open for dinner and dessert, and the menu changes by season. 1st course options include the Ragu alla Bolognese, or the Asparagi e Ricotta Ravioli, in a mushroom Fontina Bechamel sauce topped with crispy Prosciutto. Secondi main course items include a Filleto d'Espresso Chocolate Espresso rubbed filet, Lamb Rib Chops, Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, or the Pan Seared Duck Breast in a Pomegranate Jus. All dessert items are exquisite, and all cost just $7. Choose from Panna Cotta with cherry cabernet compote, Chocolate Raspberry Cake, White Chocolate Peach Bread Pudding, Gelato, or Tiramisu. Fulton is the kind of place where one quite naturally enjoys an after dinner drink, with cordials, Bourbon, Whiskey, Scotch, Frappa, Porto, Dolce wines also on the dessert menu. Fulton also allows diners to bring their own bottles of wine for a nominal corkage fee. (843-853-5555)
1 Trattoria Lucca
Inspired by the "best olive oil in the world" in the Tuscan city of Lucca, Italy, Chef Ken Vedrinski offered up a small residental corner restaurant as tribute to truly authentic Italian cuisine. Featured in Everyday With Rachel Ray, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, and the Charleston City Paper in the recent years since its opening in 2008, Trattoria Lucca has won the hearts of Charleston locavores and visitors alike. Trattoria Lucca earned the title of Best New Restaurant in its first year of business, undoubtedly for its housemade pastas and sauces, intricate menu, and elegant yet cozy interior. Chef Vedrinski is also so the sole owner and sommelier, as well as chief pasta maker. All items on the Trattoria Lucca menu are seasonal, and exquisite. For Antipasti, try the Verdiccho braised Summer Mushrooms or the Golden Beets in white balsamic, and be sure to add a Formaggi (Cheese) plate with accompaniments such as Dried Fig Piemonte and Tuscan Wildflower Honey, to your first course. Imported Salumi is a must, as well as a housemade handmade pasta dish. Sample the Fusili Bucati with wild boar sausage or the Verrigui Spaghettoro with local Sun Gold tomatoes and Calabrese chilies. For your main course proteins, try the Pancetta Wrapped Grouper, Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Vidalia Onion Cream Sauce, or the Grilled Chicken with fingerling potatoes and local veggies. A generous, thoughtful wine list offers numerous fine options, all hailing from the cuisine's revered country of origin. (843-973-3323)
About Clare Sweeney
A South Carolina native and avid locavore, Clare also ventured abroad to Spain and North to Boston, MA before returning to Charleston and her beloved Lowcountry.
Clare works and plays in downtown Charleston, spending her days enjoying the city’s perpetually sunny weather, nearby beaches, and ever-growing food and craft beer scene. Follow Clare on Twitter @LocalExpertCHS for the latest in local happenings!
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