By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Photos by RICH SCHMITT | Staff Photographer
Located on 2nd Street near Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of downtown Santa Monica, North Italia occupies the space where another popular Italian restaurant chain, Buca di Beppo, enjoyed a long run until two years ago—and yet in some ways, this Sam Fox restaurant concept is something of its philosophical opposite.
For one thing, whereas Buca di Beppo skewed familial and kitschy, with a maze of booths and its walls busy with Sinatra and Martin album covers, North Italia runs vast and airy with a minimalist decor.
Owned by Phoenix’s Fox Restaurant Group, which also operates True Food just a few blocks away, the Santa Monica location of North Italia is one of a growing countrywide chain, with its national flagship restaurant in Arizona and a local original in El Segundo, plus branches in San Diego and Las Vegas.
Lively and contemporary, North Italia Santa Monica, with its sweeping urban atmosphere, set a course (or … several courses!) for adventure upon our arrival. Appetizers at the eatery are some of the restaurant’s strongest suits, as both of our orders were sublime.
The generous Chef’s Board brings Prosciutto di Parma, artisan cheese, marinated eggplant, roasted pepper, Castelvetrano olives and Marcona almonds to the table and makes for an excellent, varied starter to ignite a happy hour and complement such excellent signature cocktails as Apple Bourbon Sour (contains Redemption bourbon and has a really nice edge to it), Sicilian Margarita (which packs a punch) and Life in Italics (Aviation gin, Italicus Rosolio, peach bitters, lavender blossom, fever tree Mediterranean tonic).
Even more dramatic, if carb-y, is White Truffle Garlic Bread, a hearty caloric investment of house-made ricotta, mozzarella, Grana Padano and herbs, served in an iron skillet, that is well worth its weight in yumminess and not to be overlooked. Definitely one of my highlights.
The chefs at North Italia do not cut corners, employing imported Italian products for their creations, such as Roland White Truffle Oil used in the White Truffle Garlic Bread. For other starters, the house also serves Burrata, Black Mediterranean Mussels (sided with grilled bread) and the very popular Grilled Artichoke, also with Grana Padano cheese.
There is one area where North Italia shares something in common with predecessor Buca di Beppo and that is in the earnestness of its timeless offerings. Oddly, most of North Italia’s menu is straight-up traditional, if contemporary, in its presentation. There is a dearth of fancy, cute or punny names, and a refreshing straight-upness about the dishes listed.
Spaghetti & Meatballs brings it on with a hulking beef sphere amid a small mountain of house-made pasta topped with a thick marinara sauce, olive oil, basil and Pecorino cheese. Squid Ink Mafaldine comes topped with white shrimp, calamari, acqua pazza, mint, fennel pollen and Calabrian chili (and for those who do not enjoy their meals spicy, be sure to let your server know in advance of ordering dishes from the Pasta section). The restaurant also serves a Grilled Branzino, which here arrives with cipollini onion, fennel, broccolini, farro, lemon and butter.
In another direction, there are a variety of stripes to be found among the Mains. Carnivores can hunt down the Braised Short Rib or Filet of Beef entrees, but we decided to roll the dice on Roasted Salmon, a tasty slab of orange loveliness accompanied by broccolini, lemon olive oil gremolata, saba and a nice white bean ragu. We also ordered Chicken Parmesan, topped with aged Provolone and crushed tomato, and accompanied by a side of Parmesan rigatoni.
Pizza-wise, we went straight for the meat-lovers’ delight: The Pig, with its layers of spicy pepperoni, soppressata and Italian sausage. Prosciutto, a gourmet pie topped with Mission fig, chevre and arugula, or Funghi, replete with roasted mushroom, cipollini onion and smoked mozzarella, are also available.
Another area where North Italia proves particularly formidable is dessert mode. We ordered three colorful plates (all of them loaded with Instagram-worthy presentation) with the grand plan of taking half of it home … and yet, somehow, all of it evaporated in a matter of minutes.
Almond & Mascarpone Tart (cranberry orange compote, basil and saba) proved sweet yet subtle. In another direction, Nutella-lovers rejoice as Hazelnut Torta makes heady use of the beloved Italian spread, in one mighty half-crescent stroke, alongside hazelnut toffee and salted caramel gelato.
Here’s a suggestion: You can bypass getting a coffee with dessert if you wind up making the Affogato your end game, as that is inherently an espresso pour over premium vanilla gelato peppered with a few coffee beans.
Hospitality is another area in which this location excels: Assistant General Manager Grant Gimpel and Restaurant Manager Armando Zelaya set the friendly, easy-going tone, while our upbeat and jocular waitress, May Matsuo-Rose, proved helpful and engaging.
Ultimately, the versatile North Italia can feed a small army with its hearty fare and healthy portions, or one can simply stop by to wile away a warm Southern California afternoon with a friend over a Cappuccino and share a bowl of Gelato or Sorbetto.
With desserts such as Salted Caramel Budino and Bombolini yet to be explored, I plan to return to North Italia as soon as possible.