One of the most romantic restaurants in Charleston —which is saying a lot— Il Cortile del Re (193A King St., 843/853-1888, Mon.–Sat. 5–10:30 p.m., $18–30) is amidst the antique stores on Lower King. Thankfully the Italian owners don’t overdo the old country sentimentality, either in atmosphere or in menu. Sure, the tablecloths are white and the interior is warm, dark, and decorated with opera prints. But the piped-in music is long on cool jazz and short on over-the-top tenors, and the skinny wine bar in the front room is a favorite destination all its own.
Portions here manage to be simultaneously large and light, as in the overtopped mussel plate in a delightfully thin and spicy tomato sauce, or the big spinach salad with goat cheese croutons sprinkled with a subtle vinaigrette. The entrées emphasize the Tuscan countryside, focusing both on slow-roasted meats and sublime takes on traditional pasta dishes. My favorite is the perfect roasted lamb in a dark juniper and rosemary sauce, served on a bed of what are likely to be the best mashed potatoes in the world. Save room for the gelato dessert, served swimming in a pool of dark espresso.
Literally right around the corner from Il Cortile del Re is the other in Charleston ’s one-two Italian punch, Fulton Five (5 Fulton St., 843/853-5555, Mon.–Sat. from 5:30 p.m., $15–32). The cuisine of Northern Italy comes alive in this bustling, dimly lit room, from the bresaola salad of spinach and thin dried beef to the caper-encrusted tuna on a bed of sweet pea risotto. It’s not cheap and the portions aren’t necessarily the largest, but with these tasty, non-tomato-based dishes and this romantic, gusto-filled atmosphere, you’ll be satiated with life itself.
One of Charleston’s original hip people-watching spots and still a personal favorite is Sermet’s Corner (276 King St., 843/853-7775, lunch daily 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Sun.–Thurs. 4–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 4–11 p.m., $9–16), on a bustling intersection of King and Wentworth. Charismatic chef and owner Sermet Aslan—who also painted most of the artwork on the walls of this charming, high-ceilinged space—dishes up large, inexpensive portions of Mediterranean-style goodies like panini, pastas, pestos, calamari, and inventive meat dishes.
The best “regular” pizza in Charleston  can be found at the multiple locations of the local chain Andolini’s (82 Wentworth St., 843/722-7437, daily 11 a.m.–11 p.m., $2–10). One of the best deals in town at this quirky, college-friendly institution is the lunch special: six bucks even for a huge one-topping slice of their signature New York–style pies, a salad, and a soda. Or for the same money you can have two cheese slices and a Bud.
Their best special, however, might be a massive 19-inch with one topping and a pitcher of beer for $20. There’s a less funky but just as tasty incarnation in Mount Pleasant (414 W. Coleman Blvd., 843/849-7437) and a fun retro-style location in West Ashley  (1117 Savannah Hwy., 843/225-4743), in addition to branches way out on James Island (967 Folly Rd., 843/576-7437) and up in North Charleston  (6610 Rivers Ave., 843/266-7437).