I hate to be a contrarian, but we don't have very many good Italian restaurants in the Twin Cities. Walking distance from your hotel, I'd go to Cosetta's, which is very good for what it presents itself as. But it won't be relaxing. You've read mixed recoomendations for Pazzaluna. There's a reson. And I can't recommend DaVinci, having given it three chances (it failed on either food, service, or both every time).
Take the 10-minute drive to Osteria i Nonni, if you have a car. It's an easy jump on and off of Interstate 35E. Nothing else is going to top it.
La Grolla is overrated. Ristorante Luci has been surviving on an outdated reputation for a long time (arrogant service and over-salted food on EVERY visit/chance I gave it).
re: Brad Ballinger
I have always had food at Trattoria DaVinci....service can be hit and miss but mostly good. You didn't have the pasta bar did you? I heard that is not the best so I always order fresh.....La Grolla is totally hit and miss for food and service.....Osteria has benn always good.....But my experience with Pazz has not been good....the bar is the only cool part.....I know it is not Italian but have you tried Meritage yet?
Never had the pasta bar at DaVinci. I'm likely never going back there, and that's more because of the service than the food.
I was at Mertiage on the third night they were open. Loved it. They were still working out kinks, obviously. I'll likely be there again soon. So many restaurants, so little time... I only didn't comment on it here since the OP asked about Italian.
i had one meal at davinci, and it wasn't good. i like meritage quite a bit, but as everyone says, it's not italian.
to me, "msp italian" (italian restaurants located in minneapolis/st paul) and "st paul italian" are two different animals. "st paul italian" would include yrusso's (has its fans, and i am *not* one) and mama's (i love mama's)-- the red sauce pasta, square-cut pizza places that are part of enjoying the local cuisine, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that these places would fly in other parts of the country/world. there are just a couple of quality italian restaurants in msp-- i nonni has already been mentioned, & that's where i'd go, or rec to an out-of-town hound.
I think you've hit on an important point, soupkitten, and that is, what does the OP mean by "Italian"? Does he/she mean a more-or-less authentic Italian restaurant, with food reasonably akin to what one would find in Italy? If so, then i Nonni is clearly the choice, and probably the only one in MSP.
But many people say "Italian" and mean something I might call "Italian-American," that is, the cuisine popularized by such places as Bucca di Beppo and even Olive Garden. This cuisine has been around a long time before these restaurants, and is well-represented in MSP by the places you mention, along with Red's Savoy Inn and many others.
There's a similar problem with "Mexican"-- what many people think of when they say this is, a place with cheap margaritas and hearty cheese nachos. This is obviously quite different from more authentic Mexican cuisine... Of course, it's the same for any cuisine, but these two have been around long enough in this country that the divergence is rather wide.
You must see Big Night if you haven't yet. It is this movie that reveals Americanization better than any other. Il Nonni offers Americanized large portions, but does make a very strong traditional statement at the same time.
On the movie theme, Tampopo the movie, and Tanpopo the noodle house in lowertown (walking distance) St. Paul make for another fun comparison. The movie is about a floundering noodle shop searching for it's true meaning. It is a journey towards improvement told in rare style. Tanpopo the restaurant, not related to the movie, knows itself very well and is a solid member of the restaurant community. They know themselves and deliver deliciousness.
There's nothing in the great end of the spectrum. Pazza and Cosetta have proximity, but far from great, and depending on your spectrum, might not even be considered good. Harsh, but if you've dined at a great Italian restaurant you'll understand.
Meritage is the best restaurant within walking distance.
Had two very disappointing meals at Luci Ancora. If you're willing to travel Heartland is on top of its game, but Chef Russo is more about local ingredients than ethnic identity.
Also: Meritage, just two blocks from the Hotel, is mostly French but always has a pasta of the day, and a few other pan-Mediterranean dishes. It is a very special place - great ambience, fantastic food. Entrees avergaging in the low 20s, cheaper at lunch. 410 St. Peter Street.
cheap; Good especially for a casual lunch cossettas (i ate there today)
Very Good;La Grolla set your wallet on fire.
Trattoria Davinci's; very good to good (I love the calamari, they call it something like misu, I also enjoy their complimentary bread and herbed butter, and their spaghetti)
Pazzaluna; good, a true corporate dining experience. excellent capratzi salad in the summer (heirlum tomatos from st. paul farmers market.
P.S. Stay away from pasta bar at DaVinci's and Pazzaluna.
Sorry that none of these are within walking distance, but they're more likely to be worth your time & money:
Osteria y Nonni – Worth the drive.
981 Sibley Memorial Hwy
St Paul, MN 55118
Ristorante Luci – Ignore the interior design and enjoy the food.
470 Cleveland Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55105
Luci Ancora – Luci’s sister restaurant, easier to get a reservation.
2060 Randolph Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55105
La Grolla – Can be hit&miss, but sometimes a decent plate of pasta and a glass of wine are enough. Closest to the hotel.
452 Selby Ave
St Paul, MN 55102-1727