A Closer Look reviews the winners from our 2015 Reader Restaurant Awards, which were announced March 16. This time around we take a look at the winners of the Best New Casual Italian Restaurant category.

What makes for a great casual Italian eatery? Is it the quality of the ingredients? The ambiance? The price? The person who becomes the face of the place? Those elements and more factored into the success of our Reader Restaurant Award’s Best Casual Italian finalists. See how they fared below.

Best: Annie’s
Devotees are reluctant to say “arrivederci” to this long-serving Italian eatery with humble origins in Sanlitun, circa 1996. Known for its affordable pizzas, reasonable prices and family-friendly dining atmosphere, Annie's has expanded over the years to nine locations in Beijing and built its menu far beyond the basics in the process. Pizzas remain the heart of the menu (20 varieties ranging from RMB 38-88), accented by pastas, salads (the small Caesar priced at RMB 18, the cheapest of 14 choices), and a underrated dessert menu featuring gelato, cannolis, ricotta cheesecake and tiramisu, to be accompanied by RMB 12 espressos. The cozy seating, soft lighting and vibrant color schemed walls add to that inviting atmosphere, not to mention the staff, who doll out fully bilingual menus and provide friendly, prompt service.

Outstanding: La Pizza
While the Beijinger may have featured an interview with the charming founder that shares Annie’s namesake, she is not quite as renowned a restaurant personality as Giuseppe de Stefano. As executive chef at La Pizza, Stefano is as friendly as he is portly, proving himself to be a standout host in Beijing’s robust Italian restaurant scene. The wood fire oven and focus on pies makes this eatery more than suited to its name, and that moniker is even further enhanced by the uniquely textured crusts, and the eclectic topping options like the Lucca Ricotta Pumpkin Pizza, Salsiccia Piccante Spicy sausage pizza, and the squid topped Fisherman’s Pie. There are also plenty of salad and pasta options the latter featuring a beloved spaghetti vongole and the polpettine ascolana pork balls and the Basic del Golfo prove to be hardy appetisers. But the main attractions are the pizzas and the pie man.

Outstanding: Mercante
This hutong Italian diner is famous for its personable atmosphere. An early the Beijinger review noted the warmly low lighting and “comforting” dishes that make Mercante, “with just a couple dozen seats …  feel like dinner at a friend’s house – a friend with an easy manner, impeccable taste and mad kitchen skills.” In this case, that friend is a chef from Bologna who makes authentically straightforward comfort food from his Italian hometown, including ricotta topped bruschetta, fillets of the beef and salmon variety, and an assortment of pastas, such as the kind of bolognese ragú that the chef grew up with. All the pasta is homemade, with the stuffed pastas — boasting interesting fillings like artichoke and pink peppercorn or pumpkin and chutney — among the best in town. These details and more make Mercante a comfortable, casual pasta hotspot that harkens back to the il bel paese (the “Beautiful Country”)

Hungry for more? Follow all of our 2015 Reader Restaurant Awards coverage here.

Images: the Beijinger (file photos)

Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog