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Belle Notte
Joe Bolognas
Johnny Carrinos
Olive Garden

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. Six are independent and three are 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 Bella Notte 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. Drive out Nicholasville Road past Man O War Boulevard, get in the left lane, and look for the restaurant's sign pointing down an obscure country road. Giuseppi's is a block down on the right. It is definitely worth the effort to find. We are lifelong ravioli conneisseurs and this Lobster Ravioli is the best ravioli in Central Kentucky. The Scallops (over creamy parmesan risotto and a roast red pepper sauce), Linguine Alla Vongole (diced clams, capers and olives sauteed in olive oil and garli, tossed with linguine and garnished with little neck clams), and Frutti di Mare (scallops, shrimp and crab in a sherried tomato cream sauce) are competitive with any Italian restaurant in Boston, New York or Pittsburgh. We like the Melanzane (Eggplant) Parmigiana here. It's lightly breaded and fried, topped with mozzarella, baked, and served over spaghetti. There are six steak entrees, five additional seafood entrees, and the usual menu of chicken, veal and pasta dishes. Among the Appetizers, the Pasta Fagiole (northern white bean, basil, tomato garlic soup) is outstanding. Their wine list is extensive and good, with the best Chiantis in Lexington. Giuseppi's

Mancino's is a national chain specializing in "Grinders," but also serving other Italian specialties. A Grinder traces back to World War I, when Italian immigrants set up sandwich shops near the U.S. Naval shipyards. In these shops they would place huge amounts of high quality meats, cheeses and vegetables in a cast iron food grinder, turn the crank, and produce a mix which they then spread on large freshly baked Italian rolls, further bake in brick ovens, and garnish with fresh tomato and lettuce. These large hot lunchtime or work break sandwiches became very popular with the shipworkers, who came to refer to them as "Grinders." After the war, sandwich makers drifted off to urban neighborhoods across the Northeast, where Grinders became a fad long before burgers, pizza and other fast food came into existence. Mancino's offers $6 half Grinders and $9 full sized Grinders in 17 classic and 13 contemporary ("gourmet") flavors. The Original Grinder includes ham, sausage, salami, mushrooms, onions, peppers, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo. Variations on this offer Turkey, Chicken, Crab, Fish, Stromboli, Meatloaf, BBQ and Tuna in differing combinations. Gourmet versions include Southwest, Reuben, Chicago Steak, Ranch and Cordon Bleu. These are good. The only problem is, Mancino's no longer grinds the ingredients. So they're not true Grinders. You might consider them "Hot Subs." The first time you go, you should order a Half Grinder. There's a lot of sandwich here. Our favorites are the Veggie, although it's a little heavy on black olives, and the Meatball, which is cram full of very good meatballs. For those not interested in a Grinder, Mancino's also offers Pizzas and Calzones.

Paisano's should be one of Lexington's great Italian restaurants. It's been here for 30 years, so has had time to build a loyal following. It's a classic family neighborhood restaurant like you find in Boston and New York. And it has the best seating in town. Paisano's has little nooks and niches, raised two steps above the main floor, separated by railings, tucked away back in corners or along walls. The Italian music is carefully muted in the background, so you can listen to it or ignore it as you wish. This is an ideal place to come for good conversation and a quiet relaxing meal with as much privacy as you can expect in a restaurant. And the menu is impressive. Sadly, the service and food do not fulfill this promise. Service is spotty, especially after the entree arrives. The food is not bad. But it's only average, only fair. In a city with several outstanding Italian restaurants, "average" is not competitive. Even the Salads, the Minestrone and the Wines are only average. The Eggplant Parmesan is overcooked. The chicken entrees and the pasta lack taste. Even neighbors who have been eating here for decades admit the food has gradually declined over the last 6-8 years. This does not mean eating here is a bad experience. It's just disappointing. You'll want to love it for its location, its coziness, its menu and its neighborhood atmosphere. We're cheering for a comeback and we'll return periodically to see if it happens. Paisano's is off Nicholasville Road just behind Planet Thai. Lexeat : Paisano's
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.
Sutton's is an upscale Italian/American restaurant which operated in Danville for two years and moved to Lexington in May 2010 with a short menu and focus on quality. The inside is a classy example of casual elegance with a three season roofed brick patio. Of their appetizers, we like their Meatballs but the real stars are their three Soups : Wedding (very delicate blend of chicken, sausage, spinach and Parmesan cheese), Baked French Onion (one of the city's better renditions), and Loaded Potato Soup (a hearty hit for cold Winter nights but be careful as it's a meal in itself). Of the entrees, we like the Scallops (grilled, with lemon and white wine), Tilapia (broiled), and the Seafood Platter (shrimp and scallop skewers and tilapia). There are Pasta Giovani (chicken, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, black olives, garlic, capers, red pepper, basil and penne pasta), FRA Daviolo (angel hair with lobster cream sauce, marinara, scallops, shrimp and scallions), and Chicken Fiorindo (baked chicken stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, cheeses, herbs, and spices). But they offer one Lexington's best Hot Browns, and the Tuscan Rib Eye is one of the best steaks in town. They also have excellent Pizza.
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