Omaha has long been a city of immigrants. The Irish and Germans arrived in the 1860s to work for the railroads and later in meatpacking plants. South Omaha seemed to be the melting pot of the city, with Eastern Europeans finding their way to the city in the late 1800s. But, it seems like Italian immigrants have had a major influence on the culinary scene. Arriving during the 1890s, Italians quickly impacted the food scene, with neighborhood markets that later transitioned into restaurants. Congregating in a small area in southeastern Omaha, the area near 10th and Pierce Streets became known as Little Italy. While the neighborhood isn’t quite the same as it was in the early 20th century, the Italian influence on Omahans’ taste buds remains strong.
Being a fan of Italian cuisine, Italian restaurants rank high on my list of dining-out choices. We’ve celebrated family events, anniversaries, and birthdays at Omaha’s Italian eateries. If you ask 100 Omahans for their favorite restaurant, you’ll be challenged to find just one that stands out. We love our Italian food and our Italian restaurants. So, here’s a look at 11 outstanding Italian eateries and what makes each special.
1. Lo Sole Mio Ristorante
Located in a former grocery market, Lo Sole Mio Ristorante is a story of love, with two high school sweethearts running away to elope. Then, with their love of Italian food driving their desire for their own restaurant, they opened Lo Sole Mio in 1992. Despite being around for about 30 years, it seems like Lo Sole Mio has been a part of the Omaha food landscape for a century. It’s been a go-to restaurant for people celebrating special occasions, such as anniversaries and graduations. With the feel of a family dinner, your order comes with a salad or soup and plenty of bread and olive oil — enough to make it a meal. But, you’ll want to leave plenty of room for their pasta marinara, pasta reggio, or baked lasagna. While at the South Omaha staple, check the wall of fame, featuring photos of celebrities such as Tony Bennett and Tommy Lasorda.
2. Cascio’s Steak & Pizza House
For nearly 90 years, Cascio’s Steak & Pizza House has been a stalwart in Little Italy. The third-generation ownership continues the classic Italian steakhouse tradition of creating its own marinara sauce, which simmers for seven hours each day. One of a few remaining classic steakhouses in a city once known for its steakhouses, dinner at Cascio’s is a special event unto itself. Each steak dinner features a side of pasta. But, if pasta alone is what you desire, you’ve come to the right place. From the standard spaghetti and mostaccioli with meat sauce to chicken parmigiano, you’ll enjoy every bite. Cascio’s serves about 3,000 people each week.
3. Pasta Amore
Located at Rockbrook Village, Pasta Amore has the look of a fancy ristorante, but it definitely has the feel of a casual dining establishment. Chef Leo wants you to focus on enjoying your meal and drink rather than concerning yourself with fitting in at an upscale restaurant. With more than three decades of service in the Omaha culinary scene, Pasta Amore is known for its “edible paintings,” as the chef likes to call creations. Eggplant parmigiana, penne Monte Christo (featuring broccoli, garlic, and chicken strips in white sauce), and cannelloni are among the outstanding menu options. Pasta Amore also features an outstanding wine selection.
4. Malara’s Italian Restaurant
An Italian immigrant by way of Argentina, Caterina Malara became a widow at a young age and turned to selling handmade pasta out of her home to help make ends meet. After a few years, she moved into the former Rotella’s bakery shop in South Omaha. Within a few years, she bought the building and turned it into one of my favorite dining spots in Omaha. After more than 30 years, Malara’s Italian Restaurant continues to make its pasta by hand, often overseen by the founder. With a sweet red sauce you won’t find elsewhere, a pasta dinner at Malara’s is a memorable event. With decor reminiscent of Italy, you’ll feel like bringing your passport, but leave it at home. Only your appetite will be required for entrance.
Starting a restaurant during the Great Recession wasn’t Nick Strawhecker’s goal, but it is what it is. The international traveler dreamed of running his own place once he started working in the food industry. The dream came true when he opened DANTE in 2009. More than a decade later, DANTE annually ranks as one of the best Italian restaurants in Omaha. Located in West Omaha’s Shops of Legacy, DANTE is known for its farm-to-table concept, using locally sourced ingredients, so the menu often changes. DANTE serves authentic Neapolitan pizza, meeting the international requirements, such as using tomatoes grown near Mount Vesuvius. The restaurant also has an outstanding collection of Italian wines, which the staff travels to Italy to research.
6. Vincenzo’s Ristorante
Another family favorite, we enjoy celebrating family birthdays at Vincenzo’s Ristorante. With appetizers such as bruschetta, toasted ravioli, and calamari, you may be tempted to fill up before dinner. Entrees such as penne diavolo, pasta primavera, and, my favorite, sausage and peppers with pasta make for an outstanding dining experience. The southwest Omaha restaurant is decorated with vintage Italian family photos, highlighting the ethnic history and connection to Omaha.
7. La Casa Pizzaria
As one of the first restaurants in Omaha to serve pizza, La Casa Pizzaria was popular from day one. At the time La Casa opened in 1953, few restaurants used round pans with which to cook. Instead, La Casa used square pans to make its pizza, a tradition that’s continued today. La Casa pizza stands out from other Omaha establishments because it uses its own sauce creation and tops its pizzas with Romano cheese. It also offers pizza with the standard mozzarella cheese. Pasta specialties include fettuccine with garlic sauce, baked lasagna, and sausage and peppers. La Casa, located in midtown Omaha, is famous for Peppi, its neon sign character, who plays the mandolin.
8. Roma Italian Restaurant
Featuring made-from-scratch food, Roma Italian Restaurant reminds you of dinner at Grandma’s. With so much food, all at reasonable prices, diners often go home with enough leftovers for another full meal. The chicken parmigiana consists of two large fried chicken breasts over a hefty portion of spaghetti. The lasagna and manicotti take up a full plate, offering delicious choices. The Bellevue eatery quickly became a favorite among Omaha Metro diners when it opened a few years ago.
9. Mangia Italiana
Bringing a piece of Sicily to Omaha, Mangia Italiana opened its doors in 2007. Located in a nondescript building in Irvington, looks are deceiving in Mangia’s case. With an outstanding menu offering pasta and pizza, Mangia may be best known for its pizzas. With pizzas such as meatball, combo, and buffalo, the best of the crop may be the Vincent Special, featuring beef, pepperoni, bacon, meatballs, onion, and garlic. Pasta dishes, such as spaghetti with sugo (Sicilian meat sauce) and chicken fettuccine, add to the dining experience.
10. Nicola’s Italian Wine And Fare
Located in the Old Market, Nicola’s Italian Wine and Fare features an upscale menu, with items such as lobster ravioli and spaghetti with olive oil and kalamata olives. Whether you dine indoors or enjoy your dinner on the patio, Nicola’s is an excellent spot for celebrating special events, such as an anniversary. With an outstanding wine selection, they can help you choose the perfect drink to pair with your meal.
11. Orsi’s Italian Bakery And Pizzeria
Omaha’s oldest Italian restaurant, Orsi’s Italian Bakery and Pizzeria opened its doors in Little Italy in 1919. At 102 years old, Orsi’s continues to rank among Omaha’s best pizzerias. From a quarter sheet with six large slices to a full sheet featuring 24 slices, the square pizza is a popular choice for locals. Orsi’s best choice may be the Goudarooni, a double-crusted pizza with the normal toppings filling the middle of the crusts. With limited seating, I suggest ordering your pizza ahead of time for takeout. The bakery serves up fresh bread and rolls daily, with the staff baking from early in the morning until late in the day. With fresh Italian meats and cheeses, as well as imported items such as olives and peppers, Orsi’s deli serves as the neighborhood market. Photos and newspaper clippings adorn the wall at Orsi, which serves as the de facto Omaha Italian Sports Hall of Fame.
For more in-and-around-Omaha inspiration, consider