2957 Michelson Dr.
Irvine, CA 92612
It was time once again to meet up with our good friends, and fellow foodies Tom and Daniele. Most of the time when we see each other we head to an all you can eat sushi restaurant, or we try to take turns picking a place that we all want to try, which can be a challenge with all of us having such strong feelings about restaurants. On this particular double date night, we all selected four restaurants we wanted to eat at and decided to make our selections based off of these lists. That's how we ended up at North Italia in Irvine.
Katie and I had scored an invite to North Italia when they were having their friends and family event when this location opened back in late 2015. We really loved our visit, but I did not feel this special sneak preview was fair to write about because it might not be indicative of their true restaurant experience. I also knew that the friends and family event had impressed Katie and me, so I knew we would eventually make a return visit to do a proper review, and that brings us to the present.
North Italia is part of Fox Restaurant Concepts, which is based out of Arizona. North Italia is their largest and probably most successful of their restaurants. They are now located in 8 states and have 17 locations open or coming soon. At North Italia, everything is made from scratch every day. The pizza dough, pasta, and sauces are all prepared in their open kitchen, which you can see through the huge window at most tables.
This is the building that used to house the old California Pizza Kitchen, although it is now unrecognizable from those days. Parking has always seemed to have been a problem in this Park Place Shopping Center, but Katie and I got a good spot near the Mother's Market, which was a short stroll to the restaurant. Wait times of an hour plus are not uncommon at North Italia, but I made a reservation two days beforehand, so we got sat right away, and waited for the always perpetually late duo of Daniele and Tom. He's worth waiting for, her not so much.
The menu at North Italia has plenty of small plates to choose from, and six to seven salads, pasta dishes, pizzas, and main entrees to select. I'd describe the food here as farmhouse Italian. Not too many big heavy plates drenched in cheese and big red sauces, which I'm more than happy with, but what North Italia has here is lighter Italian dishes, made with a little more finesse. Let's take a look at what we encountered on this evening.
Since we were waiting patiently for Daniele to peruse the menu at her leisure, we thought we might as well start with one of their starters while we waited. Fried Cauliflower ($13) was so much more than I thought it was going to be when I read it on the menu. Green and white cauliflower is the base for this starter which is served in an iron skillet and is then topped with some baby asparagus, toasted bread crumbs, lemon, pancetta cream, and a fried egg to tie it all together. A very hearty starter, without being too heavy. Cauliflower is quickly becoming one of my favorite vegetables as of late since we had this, along with a great version at Lido Bottle Works, and a deep-fried version at a Mediterranian restaurant recently. A very versatile veggie that I could not stand when I was a little kid. It's crazy how tastes can change over time.
After Daniele's lengthy ordering process, in which she bombarded our poor server with tons of questions, we got to the green portion of our meal. The top pictured salad was the Arugula and Roasted Fennel Salad ($10). Katie surprisingly got this salad, which came with plenty of arugula and fennel and was dressed simply in lemon, extra virgin olive oil, and grana padano, which is a close relative to parmesan cheese but is produced exclusively in the Po River Valley of Italy. See you can learn some stuff by reading this restaurant blog. I had my usual Caesar Salad ($10) which I enjoyed. It came with chopped romaine, shaved radicchio, more of the grana padano cheese, and croutons. This salad was lightly dressed, which allowed the cheese and the produce to be the star of this show. A very fresh and satisfying Caesar, although a few extra croutons would have been appreciated. The last salad in the picture sequence above is their Simple Salad ($9). This is North Italia's version of a dinner salad, with greens, baby tomato, gorgonzola, pine nuts, and a vinaigrette. No complaints from Tom about his salad selection.
Entree time, and let's start with Katie's pick, Strozzapreti ($19). This would have been my dinner pick had Katie not ordered it ahead of me. The sacrifices I make for a peaceful marriage. This pasta dish comes with roasted mushrooms, pine nuts, chicken, spinach, and a parmesan cream to tie everything together. The little-used strozzapreti noodle, which means priest chocker in Italian was a great vessel for this rustic dish. The noodle was dense and allowed the delicious creamy sauce to cling to the pasta. The chicken was tender, while the mushrooms added a depth of flavor that helped balance out this dish. Very well done, and Katie left here very happy with her meal.
Pizza would finally be Daniele's choice on this evening. She hemmed and hawed for a good long period over getting this Margherita Pizza ($14). Of course high maintenance Daniele had to customize this by having them add mushrooms to this, which they did without even blinking an eye. The fungi were joined by the traditional mozzarella, basil, olive oil and red sauce that usually comes with this pizza. There were no complaints from Daniele about this pizza, but after having a bite of Katie and mines food, I kind of think she was a little envious of the pasta on our plates.
One of the more common Italian staples on American-Italian menus is probably Chicken Parmesan ($21) and that would be my meal on this evening. This was easily one of the lightest versions of this classic dish that I have ever had. The chicken was pounded thin and fork tender. It was not drenched in cheese and sauce, which allowed the very well done breading coating the chicken to break through. Nicely done. The parmesan rigatoni was a nice accompaniment that showcased their freshly made pasta. This was made even better when our server sprinkled fresh parmesan over the pasta, which gave it an added layer of flavor. Nice and light, this meal did not leave me feeling bloated like I do most of the time after I have Italian food.
Tom had all sorts of problems at dinner on this evening. First, he had to eat rather light because he was going to be having a blood test for his physical at the start of the next week, and second his meal would be delayed well into our last couple of bites due to what our server called a computer glitch. He finally received his Grilled Branzino ($29) after a 15 to 20-minute delay. This fish comes with cippolini onion, fennel, farro, broccolini, and a lemon-butter sauce, which Tom asked the kitchen to use with a light touch because of his impending blood test. This fish was okay, and I'm not sure whether it was because of the lack of sauce or if that would have helped it out at all. This plate was kind of boring and lacked any kind of pop of flavor.
Due to Tom's dinner arriving late, our server was more than apologetic and also made up for it by making these four desserts complimentary. The winner in my eyes was the Hazelnut Torta ($9), which was not what I thought it was going to be at all. It was a hazelnut cake topped with a very generous scoop of salted caramel gelato, then topped with a hazelnut toffee and a streak of Nutella across the plate. Sweet, salty, warm, and cold all in one dessert. My only complaint would be that the Nutella could have been incorporated a bit more into this, but it was a standout for sure. The Bombolini ($8) gets a lot of love online and for good reason. These Italian donuts come out hot and are so addictive that they don't last too long, and have no chance to cool down. I'm not really a big lemon fan, so I'm not all in with the Meyer lemon curd these sit atop of, but the vanilla mascarpone helps dull the citrus vibe just enough for my taste. Salted Caramel Budino ($8) is always a winner, but with Daniele hogging most of this, (and why are all budinos always so small?), I did not really get to have too much of this, but I liked what I tried. Lastly, the Tiramisu ($8) was probably my least favorite of the desserts, not surprising since I'm not too keen on coffee, and this had a strong coffee flavor running through it with its heavily drenched Kahlua soaked ladyfingers. I did like the little crunch from the balls on top of this though.
Yes, there were some minor misses at North Italia on this evening, but they were kept minimal. This restaurant does not really have the look or feel of a chain restaurant. All the food was fresh and light, the service was polished, and this is the kind of restaurant that can help change Americans perception of the Italian food that we grew up with, which is heavy on the cheese and sauces. A more upscale, and modern take on Italian, getting away from the red and white tablecloths and the stereotypical mustached chef mascot. We will definitely be back, but we'll maybe leave Daniele at home. Just kidding D!
Out of five ski poles, (because some of the best skiing in the world takes place in Northen Italy, and of course you need ski poles if you want to get down those massive hills in one piece), five being best to zero being worst, North Italia gets 3.5 ski poles.
For more information about North Italia, head to their website here: https://www.northitaliarestaurant.com/