When we initially began compiling our list, it appeared relatively easy. But when we got to talking to others about their love of all things pizza, pasta and marinara, there were so many more places to consider. We're certain your place for that perfect slice is missing from our ranks, so make it known. Start a thin crust debate!
Honorable mention: Pizzeria Mozza
While pizza is in their name, Edwin says it best when waxing poetic on Nancy Silverton's salad adoration, ". . . .cherry-sized tomatoes still dangling on their vines are roasted to crinkle the skins and soften the flesh to near-liquefaction. Perched atop a blubbery base of burrata and a slobber of hand-pounded pesto, Mozza's caprese is as perfect on the palate as it is in the photos". We consider it some of the best. Ever.
800 W Coast Hwy, Newport Beach, (949) 612-9579; www.pizzeriamozza.com/NewportBeach.
It's always a good sign when other Italians recommend an Italian ristorante. That seal of approval is enough for us. Despite an unplanned move from Fashion Island to Old Towne Orange, the proprietors at Francoli haven't skipped a beat with their attention to detail, service and lively entertainment. Savor their homemade tiramisu in a neighborhood that embraces entrepreneurship.
100 S Glassell St, Orange, (714) 288-1077; www.francoligourmet.com.
9. (tie) Il Dolce
The first of our "Il" duo, this Costa Mesa heavy-hitter plays on the same pizza level as their formidable neighboring competitors, Ortica and Mozza. Bignes' Neapolitan crust knows no bounds, except when holding up his special combinations. Take for example the asparago pizza-- a trio of cheese and asparagus worlds temporarily collide over one pie. A student of (Wolfgang) Puck, he also pays homage to his mentor with a stellar barbeque-chicken pizza, flavored exactly the way one would imagine.
1902 Harbor Blvd, Costa Mesa, (949) 200-9107; www.ildolceoc.com.
9. (tie) Il Garage
David Slay has got to be the
craftiest most resourceful inventor of restaurant concepts, converting his adjacent Park Avenue garage into al fresco dining space and aptly naming it so. While orders are routed thru the same kitchen, your selection is vastly different, embracing what the surrounding garden has to offer. Look forward to seasonal antipasti fit for vegetarian royalty, plus thoughtful pastas and seafood offerings to round out your feast.
11200 Beach Blvd, Stanton, (714) 901-4400; www.parkavedining.com.
8. Lucca Cafe
Strutting a newly designed small plates menu (plus excellent brunch), Cathy Pavlos breathes life into the sleepy corner of 405 and Sand Canyon. Relax in the heated patio and ease into the crispy pork belly. Coddled more than any egg, its juicy layers cause us to temporarily forget about any and all other pork products. We are teased by its modest portion, gently resting on a dollop of kernel-mascarpone polenta. Finished with dried apricot chutney and a garnish of microgreens, the compounding flavors transforms any rowdy table into one where chewing and silent worship rule.
6507 Quail Hill Pkwy, Irvine, (949) 725-1773; luccacafe.net.
7. Cortina's Italian Market
We bestowed the title of Best Italian Restaurant to Cortina's in 2010, and for good reason. Not just a meat market, they are a smorgasbord of tastes. From vino to capicolla, their 50+year tradition of quality meals is a mainstay in the neighborhood. Stock your kitchen and order a pizza, both without requiring one to stop at Costco or move your car.
2175 W Orange Ave, Anaheim, (714) 535-1948; www.cortinasitalianfood.com.
6. Franco's Pasta Cucina
Food court feasts are few and far between, yet we have a favorite plaza which meets one of our basic needs: a go-to pasta. Found thisclose to John Wayne, Gloria Mogollon continues a tradition of garlic-infused dishes and a spot-on linguine and clams-- toothsome and herbacious with every bite. It's the stuff dreams are made of; we simply request fresh grated Parm as our silver lining.
2222 Michelson Dr, Suite 206, Irvine, (949) 852-4699; www.francospasta.com.
5. Pizza e Vino
South county gets a slice of heaven over in Real Housewives territory. Down by "the lake" in Rancho Santa Margarita, we are introduced to an exceptionally tasty pie. Served unsliced, we experiment with Sicilian white anchovy, California garlic and oregano. Fired up in a 850-degree oven, its delicate crust is easily responsive to our fork-and-knife approach. Our bites aren't fishy, but mildly savory to our palate and easy to digest, since this is a cheese-less pizza we're appreciating. Next time we intend to hoard a Parma ham with house roasted mushroom, just as soon as their Yorba Linda spot opens.
31441 Santa Margarita Pkwy, Rancho Santa Margarita, (949) 713-1500; www.pizzaevino.net.
4. Cucina Alessa
With a trio of spots to host the casual beach communities, Cucina Alessa wins over patrons with solid comfortable eats. Their original location in Newport Beach establishes our faith in seamlessly executed plates of butternut squash ravioli.The Huntington Beach locale never experienced growing pains, as a second story assists with a full bar (previously only beer and wine). However, it's the Laguna Beach branch that continues to impress us with their prosciutto-and-mozzarella bar offerings.
Multiple locations in Orange County. www.cucinaalessa.com.
3. Cafe Hiro
Our list isn't complete without a mention of the team's favorite gem in Cypress. While we dare use the F-word (fusion, people!) to describe Cafe Hiro's eclectic menu, by far the star of the show is their uni spaghetti. To give credit where credit is due, our resident Hiro fanboy (i.e. Edwin) will describe this most delectable of dishes, "The taste is akin to the richest egg yolk, an orange blob of almost indescribable flavor, except that it's like sea urchin. It has a texture that is texture-less. It's cold, wet, and sexy-- the seawater saliva of a mermaid's kiss. It seems impossible, but having it this way, coating strands of al dente spaghetti, extends a preciousness that usually only lasts a fleeting bite."
10509 Valley View St, Cypress, (714) 527-6090, www.cafehiro.com.
2. Joe's Italian Ice
Who says no to dessert? Being close to the mouse is the perfect excuse to detour over to Joe's after an afternoon of fast passes and parades. Carrying classic sundaes and cones, their swoon-worthy options can be found under the red, white and green awning. El Jefe has trouble deciding between their velvety orange dream (comparable to Orange Bang!) and Joe Latti, among other selections.
12302 Harbor Blvd, Garden Grove, (714) 750-1076.
1. Tony's Little Italy
Some of us are deep dishers, so we must sing the praises of one of the only Chi-town delights in the county. To quote myself,
"Our pizza is a retrofitted Italian masterpiece, beginning with a flaky, yet sturdy crust as its base. No schmatlzy thin layer of dough overseeing this project. Tony's can withstand and protect precious cargo from the high winds of Chi-town neighborhoods. And how about that layer of mozza? Oozing enough chewy, stringy goodness to spur an oil well. Tomatoes are strewn over like a red badge of courage. They seal in the heat and additional toppings (like sausage, onions, and peppers) during their 30-40 minute journey from counter, to oven, to box, to belly. There's a whole lot more going on than our four food groups being met; it's a renaissance of taste."
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1808 N Placentia Ave, Placentia (714) 528-2159; www.tonyslittleitaly.com.