Middle Eastern
Special Occasion
Fast Food

Lexington Ky Restaurants


Your Guide to Fine Dining


Olive Garden

Johnny Carrino's
Belle Notte
Joe Bologna's

Italian was the first nationality food in Lexington. Serafino's in 1948 (where Ala Lucie is now) and Sabatini's in 1953 (in a building now gone near the old courthouse), opened as the first restaurants in Central Kentucky serving something besides traditional Southern fare. The older restaurants had offered Spaghetti and Raviolli, but with the arrival of those two restaurants locals for the first time could sample Chicken Cacciatore, various kinds of pasta, and Spumoni. In 1960, Pizza arrived and during the decade several pizzerias opened, especially near the UK campus. By the time Joe Bologna launched his restaurant near campus in 1973, Italian was mainstream.

Today, Lexington offers nine outstanding Italian restaurants. Five are independent and two chains. We include Joe Balogna's and Puccini's in this list even though they are really upscale pizzerias. We include them here because they have full menus, sit down service and wine lists.

Bella Notte can also be considered a Special Occasion restaurant. It is very upscale, very classy, and the closest thing Lexington has to the kind of Italian restaurant you can find in Boston or New York City. The title means "Beautiful Evening" in Italy and that's pretty accurate. You can be seated near the large fireplace, a nice touch on cold Winter nights, under the spreading tree with all its lights, or by one of the oversized windows. It's a beautiful facility. Your meal begins with a very good loaf of bread and saucer of Olive Oil to dip it in. Most of the items on the menu can be ordered as singles or a family platter. Of nine appetizers, we like the Antipasto, a mix of Genoa salami, wood fired prosciutto di parma wrapped asparagus, marinated olives, cherry peppers and roasted red pepper coulis. We include this in our list of Lexington's 10 best appetizers at any restaurant. A salad of arugula, poached figs, prosciutto, goat cheese, spice walnuts and lemon vinaigrette certainly sets up the taste buds for the main course, but we always like to add a cup of their Zuppa Di Giorno. The six page menu is full of delights, but our favorites are the Rigatoni Romano (stuffed sausages), Ravioli in three different sauces, and Salmon Oreganoto. The kids can get four kinds of brick oven fired pizza. Do save room for dessert, of which our favorite is the Dolce de Latte, a vanilla infused creme caramel flan. Nicholasville Road. Pass Fayette Mall, turn right at the car dealerships, then left.
Giuseppe's is a little hard to find, but it's worth it. Drive out Nicholasville Road all the way past Man O War Boulevard, get in the left hand lane, and look for the restaurant's sign pointing down an obscure country road. This is a difficult left turn to make, across two lanes of constant oncoming traffic. Once you make it across, Giuseppi's is a block down on the right. The interior is dark and intimate, so much so that at certain tables reading the menu is difficult. The Pasta Fagioli (white bean soup with tomato, basil and garlic) is always a good appetizer, although many rave about the Portabello Bresciole (grilled mushrooms and mozzarella wrapped in ham and topped with balsamic vinegar glaze). We like the Melanzane (Eggplant) Parmigiana here. It's lightly breaded and fried, topped with mozzarella, baked, and served over spaghetti. The Grilled Sea Scallops (over a bed of cappellini with roast red peppers and peas) are very good. If you're into Italian seafood, the must try item is the Spaghetti Alla Vongole, a concoction of diced clams, capers, olives and little neck clams, sauteed with olive oil, garlic and clam stock, tossed with spaghetti. There are six steak entrees, five additional seafood entrees, and the usual menu of chicken, veal and pasta dishes. There is limited parking at Giuseppe's and the narrow road is not suitable for much overflow, so going on weeknights or early on weekends is a good strategy.
Since Portabello's was bought in 2003 by Patrick and Anna Kelly, it has developed a cult following, a band of loyal fans who eat there once or twice a week. They debate whether the bread is better than that at Bella Notte, or the pizza is better than that at Joe Balogna's. They consider three items the best in town : Shrimp Pasta, Lasagna and Fettucine. Portabella's secret is their wood oven, or perhaps their skill in using it. Other places in town have wood ovens, but the Portabella's staff seems to get more out of theirs somehow. They have a great menu, starting with appetizers. We like the Daily Frittata, an Italian quiche made with whatever is available, or the Antipasto Platter, which is the Daily Frittata plus prosciutto, mozzarella, basil, freshly roasted garlic, olives, pepper, onions and a slice of that famous bread. They offer three kinds of soup, but we prefer Tomato Florentine, a tomato soup with vegetable stock, onions, spinach, potatoes and cheese added. Of the entrees, we think the Zuppa di Pesce (seafood stew) and Shrimp Scampi Ravioli are spectacular. If you go for lunch, the Strombolis and Calzones are the best in town. 115 Locust Hill Drive. From downtown, take East Main / Richmond Road past New Circle Road and turn left on Locust Hill Drive. Portabella's is one block up.
Bellini's is the downtown Italian restaurant. From Rupp Arena, it's a three block walk. Driving, you can park across the street. but due to one way streets you have to go up Vine, turn left on Limestone, then left again on Main. If you do this, pull into the far left lane on the turn, because Bellini's is only one up from the corner, and you'll be turning left into the parking lot. A Bellini meal begins with a cup of Zuppa del Giomo (soup of the day), homemade Artisan bread, and a saucer of extra virgin olive oil with house herb mix to dip it in. They have two basic salads plus a Salad Of the Day, which is always good. There are 10 appetizers, of which we like the Antipasto Sampler : prosciutto di Parma, Genoa salami, cappicola, pepperoni, gardineira, and imported cheeses. However, if you're starved, whet your appetite with calamari, shrimp, scallops or mussels. Of the Pastas, we take the Chef's Ravioli Special Of The Day. Bellini's might be at its best with its pastas. As a matter of fact, Italian lovers think they have the best pasta menu in town. There are 17 entrees in all, including all the classics. The Secondi (meat) Menu offers a Fish of The Day, two steaks, a pork chop, veal and four chicken entrees. The Vitella Saltimbocca (milk fed veal scalloppini stuffed with prosciutto, provolone cheese, sage, garlic and spinach) is our Bellini nomination for Top 10 Lexington Entrees. Save room for the Tiramisu, a dessert involving mascarpone cheese, espresso licqueur, coffee syrup, chocolate, and whipped cream.
The Olive Garden is a chain franchise, but Lexington's Fayette Mall was its very first location and it remains a popular stop. This may be Corporate Italian, but it's good. Among appetizers we like the Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta, an oven baked mix of smoked mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and romano cheese served with Tuscan bread. If you don't eat Italian often, you might prefer the Sampler, a platter of squid, mushrooms, fried zucchini, chickcn fingers, fried mozzarella and roast meat ravioli. Of the three soups we'll take the Toscana, a blend of spicy sausage, russet potatoes and cavolo greens in a creamy broth. Kids will be happy with one of their pizzas, which come with a salad. You can get six kinds of Yuppee coffee, but the Caffe la Toscana is more authentic and equally delicious. However, as beverages go, we much prefer the Villa Antinori, a great Italian wine, a blend of three kinds of grapes from Sangiovese vineyards. From entrees, we recommend the Mixed Grille (skewers of marinated steak, chicken, vegetables, and Tuscan potatoes), Seafood Portofino (mussels, scallops, shrimp and mushrooms in linguine in garlic butter wine sauce), and Sausage Rollatini (oven baked lasagna filled with cheeses, sausages, tomato alfredo sauce and mozzarella). Fayette Mall.
Johnny Carrino's is the youngest Italian restaurant in town but it's done quite well. Much of their success is due to their menu, which offers items nobody else does. The Crab Fondue is one of those : crabmeat, cheese, pico de gallo, parmesan, and garlic. They're quite proud of their oven here. They display it prominently and offer 13 entrees baked in it. Of those, we think the Jalapeno Garlic Tilapia is the best. The fish is pan sauteed with garlic, tomatoes, jalapenos and spinach in lemon butter cream sauce, then served over angel hair pasta. But the Chicken Scaloppini and Skilletini are also appealing. Carrino's offers 12 Family Platters designed to serve three, but easily capable of serving four. For traditionalists, there are 13 classic Italian items, ranging from Lasagna, Tortelloni and Rigatoni to Ravioli, Gorgonzola and Parmigiana. The Ravioli are especially interesting. They're stuffed with crabmeat, spinach and diced tomatoes, topped with lemon basil cream sauce. Three fire grilled steaks are available as are five grilled Paninis. Save a spot for dessert. There's Apple Skillentini, Turtle Cheesecake, Chocolate Cannoli and Mascarpone (bread pudding). Hamburg Place (Sir Barton Way) and Fayette Mall (behind Courtesy Pontiac). Out Winchester Road or Nicholasville Road from downtown.
Joe Bologna's is a double Lexington landmark. The restaurant was established in 1973 as a pizzeria. It has since moved into a converted 1891 church which was itself on the National Register of Historic Places. The original chandeliers and Eastern Kentucky wideboard pine floors have been retained, but the pulpit became the bar. So Joe Bologna's may now be the only restaurant anywhere with 41 stained glass windows and an altar serving six kinds of draft beer. Back in the seventies, Joe built his business on pizza, still keeps a close eye on its preparation, and many Lexingtonians still swear it's the best in town. Joe's pizza is famous for his sweet, herby tomato sauce; his thick and delicious crust; and his special crisp pepperoni. The toppings are as good as anyone's, but many of Joe's patrons would be content to ladle on the tomato sauce or his handmade garlic butter and just eat the crust. However, he serves up a fine Spaghetti, the best Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan in town, and very competitive Cannelloni, Manicotti, and Chicken Cacciatore. The garlic bread served as an appetizer is dangerous; many a customer has filled up on it before the meal arrived. 120 West Maxwell. 252-4933. They offer carryout but no delivery. It's halfway between UK and downtown, four blocks from Rupp.
Puccini's straddles the line between categories. It is a full scale sitdown restaurant which also offers carry out pizza (no delivery). Especially in the Chevy Chase area, it's loved for its pizza. But it also offers the best Calzones in town, excellent bowls of Minestrone and Pasta Fagole, nine chicken dinners (Marsala, Parmesan, Venezia, Torino, Romana, Alfredo, Piccatta, Pesto and of course Cacciatore), six vegetarian dinners, three shrimp dinners, a full complement of Italian salads, and competitive versions of Ravioli, Spaghetti, Lasagna, and Fettuccini Alfredo. The Pizza choices far surpass anything available at a basic carryout franchise. Appetizers, sandwiches and desserts complete the food, beers can be had bottled or draft, and a wine list is available. Chevy Chase Place on High Street. 269-0404. From downtown, follow High Street into Chevy Chase and look for The Chevy Store on your right. Puccini's is two doors down the same plaza.
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