“Does it feel like a chain?” my pal asks when I invite her to dine at North Italia, Irvine’s slick, new, and noisy Italian hot spot. I can’t lie, so I don’t answer. I simply point out that North Italia’s neighbors include Houston’s, Lemonade, LA Fitness, and Mother’s Market.
Open since December, the restaurant occupies an easy-access spot in Park Place, a center so bustling it has its own traffic conductor
during happy hour. The giant glass box is hard to miss, towering over nearby Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Sun-splashed by day and stylishly lit by night, the voluminous room dwarfs the diners in it, while still feeling surprisingly more intimate than its 255-seat capacity. Even so, the space hardly resembles the website description of a “love letter to Italy that feels like stepping off a charming side street to discover a culinary gem”—though there’s some truth to the culinary gem part.
Yes, this is a chain, as are most of Irvine Company’s high-profile tenants. Fox Restaurant Concepts, a thriving Arizona-based empire of more than 50 units and 15 concepts, is the force behind North Italia. And right now it owns nine restaurants by that name, stretching from El Segundo to Kansas City. All of which make this O.C. venue’s achievements of intimacy and honest food so delightfully unexpected—and why my playing coy with my pal left her free to judge it apart from that pesky chain label.
Menus remind us that the dishes are made-from-scratch daily and handmade with love, the latter claim slightly less believable and definitely less verifiable. From scratch, however, is always admirable, and these days, a chain restaurant with a scratch kitchen deserves success. Is there anyone who doesn’t salivate at the thought of house-made pasta or artisan pizza? Even if not made with love, they present lovable qualities.
Pizza is a versatile player here. Crisp-chewy crust is eat-every-inch flavorful, making one 12-inch round an ideal shareable starter. By the look of nearby tables, I’m not the only one who can’t resist The Pig, an ultra-savory composition of soppressata, crumbled sausage, and spicy pepperoni atop crushed tomato sauce. It’s a spunky pairing with the Quiet Italian Gentleman, a nimble cocktail of rye, vermouth, and Campari. Another pizza with bold flavors is the prosciutto pie with dark figs, tangy goat cheese, and fresh arugula.
The concise menu offers limited choices in expected categories: small plates, pizzas, salads, pastas, and mains. Worthy small plates include calamari fried in a diaphanous batter; mushroom risotto arancini hiding a molten bit of smoky scamorza cheese; and a giant serving of pillowy baked truffle bread topped with fluffy ricotta. Braised meatballs prove inconsistent; they can be overcooked and tough, or soft and beefy.
Our cheerful server praises the Tuscan kale salad for its seasonal fruit, and it did contain apple slices and grape halves, but they’re generally considered fall crops and this was in April. Still, it panders to multiple cravings—sweet, salty, juicy, and chewy. Plus the kale was cut to tiny bits, and roasted pistachios add finesse to almost any dish. Don’t overlook the Italian farm salad because it sounds like a mundane antipasto affair. It’s bright and refreshing with just enough Italian oregano vinaigrette. This crisp bowlful begs to partner with any of the richer dishes.
Pasta dishes that qualify as rich include the chicken strozzapreti. The strozzapreti noodles are hand-rolled and cooked to the proper al dente to counter the soft chicken and rich Parmesan cream sauce buffed up with roasted mushrooms and toasty pine nuts. This charmer has bestseller written all over it. The short-ribs radiatore is hugely popular, and while my guests love the order, I say the dish doesn’t meld, the chunks of beef leaving the radiatore noodles bare and lonely. But yes, the meat is rich and melty on the palate. The squid ink mafaldine is called a sleeper, but I don’t know how the ruffly mafaldine pasta could ever be considered an ugly-duckling choice. The dish tastes lightly of ocean brine, making a lovely base for sweet white shrimp and buttery calamari. Hits of fennel pollen and Calabrian chile supply pizazz.
Trade pasta for polenta and get that gorgeous braised short rib in a better-rendered main course. A goodly portion of the slow-cooked beef comes with roasted vegetables and an irresistible creamy polenta cut with milky mascarpone. Main dishes are usually served in generous portions, but by the time you get this far down the menu, there’s no appetite left after feasting on pizza, pasta, and hearty appetizers. I rarely spotted a diner tucking into the Skuna Bay salmon, diver scallops, or grilled branzino. I do see a few chicken Parmesans leaving the kitchen. I also see a lot of bagged leftovers leaving the restaurant.
If there’s no room left, why are desserts everywhere? Because we make room for them when they entice. A surprisingly graceful olive-oil cake with berries and macerated orange earns my love, and the silky caramel budino is a crowd-pleaser. And of course, warm bombolini glittering with sugar and resting on lemon curd is—not surprisingly—dangerously delicious. It’s evident that North Italia executes at a higher level than other Italian chains. Rich, intense flavors, discerning techniques, and a modern mindset easily make this one better than some of the indies out there. No wonder the place is perpetually packed.
BEST DISHES Arancini, calamari, Tuscan kale salad, Italian farm salad, The Pig pizza, prosciutto pizza, strozzapreti pasta, squid ink mafaldine pasta, slow-cooked short rib and polenta, salted caramel budino, olive-oil cake, bombolini, Quiet Italian Gentleman cocktail
PRICE RANGE Lunch, $7 to $23; dinner, $7 to $38; brunch, $7 to $23
FYI North Italia owner Fox Restaurant Concepts also owns Newport Beach’s True Food Kitchen.
2957 Michelson Drive