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Cuckoo’s Nest, Old Saybrook,
(860) 399-9060 (cuckoosnest.biz)
Cuckoo’s Nest’s “Connecticut Nachos,” satisfyingly crunchy corn tortilla chips topped with melted cheese, refried beans, spiced ground beef, jalapeños and tomatoes and served with guac and sour cream, are a treat unto themselves. If, however, you’re looking to prove that nachos alone can make a meal, start with the “Original Nachos,” with that same yummy cheese and those refried beans, then build your own nacho masterwork. Add-ons include ground beef, steak, chili con carne, shrimp, chicken, tomato, scallions —the list goes on.
Milford, (203) 877-7327
This Milford fixture is the definition of a neighborhood restaurant: A family-run eatery for the entire family with (in this case) great fried seafood, friendly service and reasonable prices. On its third generation of ownership by the Smith family, it’s a place not long on pretense where you can belly up to the bar for appetizers or to watch the game, or sit in the dining room for a full meal—in addition to seafood (be sure to try the lobster roll), the menu also includes burgers, steak, chicken and pasta.
Lakeville, (860) 435-0578
This cozy local gathering place (it seats 80) stays while other restaurants come and go. It could be because it has all the right ingredients: friendly atmosphere, varied menu—from pistachio-crusted salmon with lemon beurre blanc to grilled steak with crisp red onion rings to the ”hot grill” sushi roll—an extensive wine list and great drinks served at a fun 14-seat bar. Most important, portions are generous, prices reasonable, and it’s all served with a smile. No wonder locals love it and out-of-towners quickly feel at home.
Old Saybrook, (860) 399-4166
In an unassuming strip-mall location, Alforno Trattoria has been serving Italian fare with panache to shoreline couples and families, weekenders and tourists, even area chefs, for the past 20 years. And now, after a face-lift that resulted in a warmer, cozier feel (think peachy colors) and a new menu that encourages grazing, the place seems more welcoming than ever. The casual-chic ambience, crowd-pleasing brick-oven pizza (cheese is No. 1, though the white pie with asparagus and caramelized onions gets high marks, too) and chef-owner Bob Zemmel’s house specialties keep the fans coming back—Lowell Weicker has a standing order for the cannelloni Florentine, food writer Lee White favors the arugula chicken, and we go back time and again for the pumpkin ravioli in butter-sage sauce and veal and ricotta meatballs. Sounds like all the ingredients are in place for another delicious 20 years.
The Village Restaurant
Litchfield, (860) 567-8307
The fare is hearty and so are the folks who gather for food, drink and conversation/gossip at this Litchfield landmark, located just across the street from the town green. The Village is divided into two rooms—on the left side is the lively bar, on the right is the dining room, but on a busy evening there’s a fair amount of movement back and forth. As for the food, there’s a wide selection ranging from pub fare (good onion soup and burgers) to paella, fresh seafood and a nice weekend prime rib.
First & Last Tavern
Hartford, (860) 956-6000, and other locations (firstandlasttavern.com)
Maybe it’s the vintage photos that adorn the walls of this rustic tavern, or the regulars who come to enjoy the unforgettable pasta sauce and other original family recipes that haven’t changed since 1938. Whatever it is, you feel at home from the moment you walk in the door. The Neapolitan pizza, topped with simple yet exceptional ingredients, is delicious, and the bread made at their bakery across the street will have you singing “Home Sweet Home.”
Stonington, (860) 535-3925
Sometimes a “Neighborhood Restaurant” winner has as much to do with the neighborhood as it does the restaurant. This is certainly the case with Noah’s, located in one of Connecticut’s most charming communities, Stonington Borough. Noah’s does a good job of capturing the spirit of the place (it seems a comfortable spot for locals to congregate)—and the three meals a day it serves are very good, too, all homemade using fresh, wholesome ingredients and “slow scratch” cooking methods.
La Tavola Ristorante, Waterbury,
(203) 755-2211 (latavolaristorante.com)
La Tavola divides its wonderful pasta menu into two sections. There’s “Pasta,” where you’ll find penne, paccheri, spaghetti carbonara (with soft onions, peas, pancetta, cracked black pepper & Grana Padano cheese) and rigatoni with sausage, broccoli rabe, Italian butter beans, garlic & chili oil. And then there’s the dreamy, truly exceptional “Fresca/House Made” pasta, which on a recent evening included garganelli with wild mushrooms, parmigiano crema and truffle oil; cavatelli pomodoro with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil and perlini mozzarella; and asparagus ricotta ravioli with orange zest, fennel pollen and Parmigiano Reggiano. Add a glass of Chianti and it’s amore at first bite.
Pasta Fina, Shelton, (203) 922-0041
Pasta Fina is a wonderful little throwback: a small, friendly neighborhood shop where you can go in and get any type of freshly made pasta—say a pound of lasagne noodles, linguini or spaghetti—cut to order. Since 2002, former restaurateur Claudio Mancuso and his family have been making every variety of egg and specialty pasta, as well as prepared items such as mushroom ravioli and whole wheat pizza, for customers to take home and cook in their own kitchens. But be warned—once you’ve had it fresh from Pasta Fina, you may never buy dried commercial pasta in a box again.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven,
(203) 865-5762, and other locations (pepespizzeria.com)
It’s no surprise that Pepe’s pies have made our “Best of Connecticut” list again—their overly generous, brick-oven-baked, thin-crusted slices have been a Connecticut staple for over 70 years. The best part about Pepe’s? They have expanded out of the original Wooster Street venue: now Danbury, Fairfield, Manchester, Uncasville and Yonkers, N.Y., share the secret to the success of this small Italian pizzeria that set the standard for brick-oven pies.
Passiflora, New Hartford,
(860) 379-8327 (passiflorateas.com)
This all-natural tearoom and herbal apothecary features a homemade quiche of the day in a variety of vegetarian options made with locally farmed ingredients. Three cheese and chive is always available, while tomato, basil and feta, potato and cheddar, and broccoli, red onion and pepper take turns on the menu. The organic crust is scrumptious but if you’re gluten-intolerant, be sure to try the crustless gluten-free miniquiches.
Liv’s Oyster Bar, Old Saybrook,
(860) 395-5577 (livsoysterbar.com)
Tucked inside a converted movie house on Main Street is some of the freshest, most creative seafood imaginable. Chef Brescio is obsessed with shellfish, and every day Liv’s Oyster Bar presents succulent oysters from all over the world, as well as clams, shrimp, lobster and crab. Raw is awesome, but don’t skip dinner: The chef also makes lots of artful seafood dishes—served hot.
Restaurant/Bar Beer Selection
Eli Cannon’s, Middletown,
(860) 347-ELIS (elicannons.com)
Eli Cannon’s likes to think of itself as one part Irish pub, one part English pub, one part American trailer park. Well, whatever they are, we like it. The atmosphere is fun, with barber chairs, theater seats and leather couches among the seating options, and all sorts of neat memorabilia covering every inch of wall and ceiling space. Then there’s beer, the real reason we keep coming back for more. They’ve got 33 real ales on tap, rotated constantly to ensure freshness and “revolutionary selection,” including Bar Harbor Blueberry Ale and Smuttynose IPA.