My pick for best Italian food in Austin

My grandmother, who for years worked as a waitress at the Jolly Roger restaurant in Urbana, Illinois, prided herself on the relationships she made with her customers. The J.R. was a popular Italian eatery nestled in downtown Urbana that had a pipe-smoking organ player; shadowy, candlelit booths; and was frequented by virtually everyone who was anyone in these twin cities.

Jean Pellum treated her customers like family and watched at least two generations of children grow up; each milestone in their life celebrated at the J.R.

My grandmother died in 1993, and the J.R. was never the same. In the mid 1990s, the restaurant began a slow, downward spiral and closed in 2007, twelve years after I last stepped foot inside.

For years, I’ve been searching for an Italian restaurant that fills the void of the J.R. While nothing will ever come completely close, Reale’s, located in North Austin, comes as close as anything ever will.

Friends introduced us to Reale’s not long after we moved to the neighborhood. I found it dark and cozy, and no matter what night of the week you visit the wait staff is the same. This is a family owned restaurant with career staff. Every server knows the wine list by heart and can describe dishes in extensive detail.

The dress code exists on a spectrum that ranges from shorts and sandals to tuxedos. Each customer is equally welcomed to mounds of delicately seasoned marinara, homemade meatballs, and pizza that is among the best I’ve tasted. While the chicken Parmesan is especially seductive, the cannoli is downright sultry.

It’s common during your visit to have an older, handsome man in slacks and a jacket come by your table, pat you on the shoulder and ask you how your meal is. It may be difficult to tell him it’s not the best Italian food you’ve ever had.

More: Read the story about how Reale’s started.

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