Old-World Traditions, Lowcountry Style at Charleston's 10 Best Italian Restaurants
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. Unbeknownst 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 an Italian meal in Charleston 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 Ashley River in Avondale, 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 mealtime gathering, feast family-style on pizza and pasta at The Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island, or amongst the lively buzz of the community table at King Street's Indaco. Find yourself in lively conversation with friends and a glass of Italian Pino Noir in the quaint historic home of 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.
10 Il Cortile Del Re
Conveniently located downtown 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 the al fresco side patio, perfect for a warm, quiet evening out. This romantic Italian restaurant hosts happy hour from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, as well as a full bar and extensive wine list each evening. Antipasti items include mussels, soups and salads Caprino, Caprese, and Italiana. For the main event, try the Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, Spaghetti al Fruitti di Mare or Penne with asparagus, pancetta, and wild mushrooms. Main Carne i Pesce items include Stewed Wild Boar over pappardelle, Seared Veal with mushroom demi glaze, and the fresh fish catch of the day. (843-853-1888)
9 MUSE Restaurant & Wine Bar
Muse truly shows its dedication to authentic Italian cuisine in the carefully planned menu, atmosphere, and decor of this reliable locals' favorite. It was from the ancient Villa of Mysteries in Pomeii, Italy, that the idea of Muse Restaurant was said to have been originally inspired. Be sure to make reservations in advance - this historic home turned Society Street restaurant is a popular place for eating, drinking fine wines and lingering over intimate conversation. For starters, try the Clams Fettunta, Grilled Calamari, or one of Muse's creative artisan salads, like the Seared Manchego Cheese & Baby Arugula, dressed in a Blood Orange Vinaigrette. For a light but plentiful main course, sample the Gnudi with green pea puree and cauliflower, or the Fennel Dusted Scallops with lima bean and tomato ragu. Whatever you elect to order at Muse, your dish will arrive elegantly presented and full of robust local flavors. (843-577-1102)
8 Al di La
Located just a quick drive from downtown Charleston, Al Di La gives reason to venture across the Ashley River, with its focus on the simple goodness of authentic Northern Italian dishes. Handmade, hand-rolled pasta and fresh, local ingredients are notable in the full flavors of each dish at this West Ashley 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 and family. Antipasti options include a Seafood Gazpacho, Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs, and a fresh Caprese Salad. Advance to the 1st course with a Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu or Fettuccine Bolognese. Secondi course items like Asparagus Risotto with Seared Sea Scallops or the Pesce del Giorno are sure to round out a filling meal. Save room for a dolci dessert of Tiramisu, Ricotta Cheesecake, or gelato. (843-571-2321)
Rev it up! That's the theme at Monza, a small, yet bold wood-oven pizzeria that boasts a menu of creatively topped Neapolitan-style pizzas, traditional pastas, meal-worthy salads and Italian red and whites. Named for "La Pista Magica," a famed luxury racetrack in Italy, this Upper King Street fixture glows with neon red, black and white accents, perhaps a nod to the checkered finish line flag of the Monza track. The thin, crispy pizzas at Monza, each bearing the name of a celebrated Italian race car driver, are satisfyingly full of flavor and crunchy texture. Included among the menu's star studded lineup is the Ciccio four-cheese, the Fangio, made with housemade sausage and jalapenos, and the Ronnie Peterson, loaded with oven-roasted chicken breast, pesto and artichokes. Not up to follow the footsteps of these racers and their namesake pizzas? Opt to "Take the Wheel," and create your own legendary pizza. (843-720-8787)
The wood-fire grills and open rotisseries of Indaco, an Indigo Road venture on Upper King Street, add flavor and integrity to each of the pizzas, pastas and other entree plates on the menu. Housemade salami and house-cured meats star in the Butcher Board antipasti, while creative ingredients like clams, Italian sausage and figs come atop the enticing Indaco pizzas. For a heartier meal, try a Platti of Whole Roasted Snapper or Pork Belly, or a heaping serving of Bucatini or Black Pepper Tagliatelle pasta. Housemade Italian sodas, an extensive wine list, and a cocktail menu inspired from Italy's classics like the Negroni and Bellini, are a highlight of the Indaco bar offerings. Ask for seating on Indaco's covered patio to enjoy the weather and a spacier, quieter dining environment. (843-727-1228)
5 Fulton Five
Most truly authentic Italian eateries are often included among any city's circle of most romantic restaurants. The ivy-dressed, intimate setting of Fulton Five claims this common title, but with proof - it's been named Most Romantic Restaurant in Charleston 17 years in a row! Located just off lower King Street, Fulton Five is well known and well-loved; busy and buzzing every night. Fulton Five's menu offers a robust selection of everyone's Italian favorites. Start your meal with a glass or bottle from their extensive wine list, along with an order of Zuppa or Bruchetta as antipasti. Continue with a primi course of Short Rib Ravioli or Orecchiette with Lobster and Crab in Shellfish Cream Sauce. Round out your authentic Italian experience with a secondi course of Chocolate Espresso-Rubbed Filet or Sea Scallops over Tortellini. Make reservations in advance, and take advantage of the small parking lot just across Fulton Street. (843-853-5555)
4 Wild Olive Cucina Italiana
Located on John's Island just a short drive from downtown, Wild Olive Italian Cucina is nestled into a country cottage, complete with low lighting, local artist wall murals and a majestic live oak stretching over the restaurant entrance. Chef Jacques Larson serves up traditional Italian dishes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from the many farms and growers in the area, alongside specially 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 views into the bright and busy Wild Olive kitchen. The menu includes such lowcountry-inspired Italian dishes as steamed local clams in lemon-caper zupetta, Orecchiette with corn, chile and lime, Veal Scallopine with locally farmed mushrooms and peas, and an intricate Grilled Swordfish Cioppino. Seek out Wild Olive for a reliable and delightful date night destination. (843-737-4177)
3 Pane e Vino
Almost every city hides away one special restaurant off the beaten tourist path that is reliable, comfortable and delicious. Nondescript from the outside, but full of local spirit, Pane e Vino is just such a place, tucked away on quiet Warren Street with only a chalk board to proclaim its existence there. Entrees range from $15 - $23, a modest request for an authentic menu dedicated to vivid flavors and presentation. A meticulous attention to detail is paid to every dish, as evidenced by interesting antipasti starters like the Smoked Duck Breast on Sardinian flatbread, and main courses like the homemade spinach ricotta ravioli. Order the Cioppino to share - this seafood stew simmers in a light tomato sauce with fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops and lobster. Pane e Vino is a small venue - be sure to make reservations, and ask for a table in the festively lit outdoor patio. (843-853-5955)
2 The Obstinate Daughter
The Obstinate Daughter, a new addition to the growing Sullivan's Island culinary scene, has become a hot-spot destination for the entire Charleston area. At a glance, the menu seems simple: small plates, pizzas, pastas, sandwiches. Upon further study, and by the time your order arrives, you'll discover that the distinct flavors and local charm of this self-proclaimed "food fort" lie in the details of every dish. Here, the menu is influenced by Italian, French and Spanish cuisine, but most of all, by the bounty of the surrounding lowcountry. Brought to the island in 2014 by Chef Jacques Larson, also of Wild Olive on Johns Island, The Obstinate Daughter's name pays homage to the Battle of Sullivan's Island in 1776. The American victory here inspired a London political cartoon depicting a caricature of the defenders of Charleston as "Miss Carolina Sullivan, one of the obstinate daughters of America." (842-416-5020)
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 residential corner restaurant as tribute to truly authentic Italian cuisine. Featured in countless magazines and features since its opening in 2008, Trattoria Lucca has won the hearts of Charleston Italian-loving 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, thoughtful and intricate menu, and elegant yet cozy and approachable interior. Chef Vedrinski, as James Beard Semi-Finalist, is also the sole owner and sommelier, as well as chief pasta artist. All items on the Trattoria Lucca menu are seasonal, and exquisite. For Antipasti, try the Foraged Mushrooms with sea salt or the Golden Beets in white balsamic, and be sure to add a Formaggi (Cheese) plate with accompaniments such as Apple Mostarda and Tuscan Wildflower Honey, to your first course. Imported Salumi is a must, as well as a housemade handmade pasta dish. Sample the Fusilli Bucati with duck Italian sausage or the Tagliolini with seared N.C. scallops. For your main course, try the Local Triggerfish, Grilled Ribeye with beef cheek ravioli or the Scaloppini of Sonoma Duck, with cannelloni and dried figs. 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 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!
Read more about Clare Sweeney here.