I grew up in a part of the country where the “I” in Italian was overly emphasized.
For example, our knowledge of “Eye”-talian cuisine was limited to the meager offerings of small pizza places. The ones that churned out pies that needed heavy hits of red peppers just to add some flavor.
There was also what we could score in the frozen food aisle at the J-C.
But I learned better.
We moved around a lot. And as I grew, we moved near some college towns like Bloomington and later Knoxville where the idea of different flavors and spices were not only embraced but natural. Honestly, I know the idea of Italian cooking isn’t seen as exotic to most of you. But when you grow up in rural America, the taste of Italy can be a rarer find.
I was blessed with the idea that traveling and seeing the country and the world is something worth pursuing. The world, I learned, was bigger than the hills of Southern Indiana or the mountains of East Tennessee.
And so as we visited larger cities like London or New York, Paris or Chicago with large, authentic Italian communities, we made it a point to seek out authentic experiences. We wanted places offering more than garlic knots and run-of-the-mill dishes that hoped to be saved by a heaping helping of mozzarella cheese.
As a result, when I began trying to learn to cook for myself and others, I leaned heavily on the flavors of Southern Italy. I can’t claim any special talent in the kitchen, but my picky eaters have always liked it.
Italian restaurants in Gatlinburg
When we go to Gatlinburg, however, Italian isn’t first on the list.
Barbecue, steaks and seafood are the typical favorite fare. But as locals, we drive in for a day and drive back home. We’re not staying multiple nights and there are plenty of places in the area we can go for Italian. Altruda’s in Knoxville remains the greatest Italian in East Tennessee for me.
However, they don’t have an Altruda’s on the East Parkway, which they really should, because when you’re on the road for your Smoky Mountain vacation, the idea of a great Italian restaurant might just hit the spot.
So, without further ado, here are the best places to get delicious food like gourmet pizzas, layers of lasagna pasta or homemade meatballs in Gatlinburg.
6. New York Pizza and Pasta
Located in the Mountain Mall, New York Pizza and Pasta is a counter service for someone looking to get a tasty slice of pizza while on the go.
If you subscribe to the theory that there’s no such thing as bad pizza, which I do, this is a great place to get a delicious pizza on your next trip shopping along the strip.
5. Big Daddy’s Pizzeria
The fact of the matter is this, most of the places that serve Italian in Gatlinburg are pizza joints first and Italian restaurants second.
Certainly, it makes sense. There are dozens of hotels and thousands of hotel rooms, not to mention the chalets and cabins. So delivering fantastic pizza can result in a lot of dough, and I don’t mean pizza dough.
To that end, Big Daddy’s offers a variety of handcrafted pizzas cooked in a 550-degree wood-fired brick oven. It makes for a unique brand of pie.
Among their specialty pizzas is the Carnivore which is a favorite. In its description of the Carnivore, Big Daddy’s website first mentions the marinara sauce, which is what we in the newspaper business call burying the lede. If you’re ordering the Carnivore, you want to know about the meat. In fact, the sauce is an ancillary issue.
The Carnivore comes with prosciutto, Italian sausage, pepperoni and freshly-seasoned ground beef. Throw in the marinara and their special mozzarella-provolone cheese blend and you’ve got something special.
If a meat-heavy pizza isn’t your thing, the Great White features Alfredo sauce topped with mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, feta and Parmesan cheeses. The chicken parmigiana pizza is also quite good.
Big Daddy’s is also a great place to get some of the best spicy hot chicken wings in the Smoky Mountains.
4. Pizzeria of Gatlinburg
We’re going to stick with the pizza theme.
Pizzeria of Gatlinburg offers a wide variety of pizzas, wings, sandwiches, hoagies and gyros.
I’ve seen some internet spots that promise New York-style pizzas, but I treat that claim dubiously.
The actual POG website doesn’t reference New York-style in the main navigation so I think it’s safer to say good pizzas with authentic Italian ingredients.
In fact, I think it might be pushing it a little bit to call this an authentic New York pizza place. But the fresh garlic rolls almost make up for any misunderstandings about pizza style.
Pizzeria of Gatlinburg has a lot of pizza styles that go beyond Italian favorites, but you can’t go wrong with the Italian classic Capricciosa pizza with three cheeses, prosciutto, fresh mushrooms and red sauce.
3. Taste of Italy
I was skeptical, at first, of this Italian restaurant seemingly named after the Olive Garden’s most enduring dish. But I worried for nothing.
This is nothing terribly unique about the place, just regular Italian-style food done well. A great option if you’re hungry for pasta, pizza or more.
2. Mellow Mushroom
We’re back to the pizza places.
It isn’t New York Style, but the Mellow Mushroom is just about my favorite pizza place … partly for sentimental reasons.
My 9-year-old son, who has multiple food allergies including dairy and beef, swears by their vegan cheese pizza. And I’ve had it, it’s really quite good. When the boy gets to feel like a normal kid having a pizza with the family, that’s a win.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Mellow Mushroom menu is creative and different, which is difficult in the pizza game, with the freshest ingredients. Every pizza I’ve ever had at the Mellow Mushroom has been legitimately great.
1. Best Italian Cafe and Pizzeria
I like a restaurant that understands SEO and goes for it.
With two locations, the Best Italian Cafe and Pizzeria in Elks Place and the Best Italian on the Parkway, this popular restaurant chain stakes its claim to being the best, boldly and proudly. I love it.
The Parkway location is the express spot for those who plan to eat quickly and move along. The original location at Elks Plaza is considered among the best restaurants in the region.
Best Italian offers great pizza but we’ve spent so much time focusing on pies, we should examine the deeper menu they offer that some pizza places may not.
It seems like a small thing, but Best Italian is known for its famous garlic rolls. In addition, among its popular dishes are a variety of pasta primavera, alfredos and more. The chicken florentine and the chicken marsala are excellent as is the linguini and clam sauce.
Do you have a favorite Italian restaurant in Gatlinburg? Let us know in the comments!