North Italia has taken over the space on Restaurant Row that has long been vacant after a fairly short residency by J. Alexander’s, a Hillstone-like restaurant that failed to make a go of it.
North Italia should do just fine there, if what I observed during my visit is any indication. The place was bustling and full with a largely young crowd enjoying the darkly moody atmosphere, finely crafted food and surprisingly good service.
I want to start with the latter because the quality of service has been a sore spot lately as so many restaurants are dealing with staffing shortages. There were service blips, to be sure, the sorts of things one expects from a new operation. What I found encouraging was how deftly those blips were dealt with and corrected. And I was even more impressed after finding that it was the first day on the job for our server. She showed that she had undergone proper training, and that is promising for the future of dining.
It helps that the crew is serving a good product. North Italia is a brand that was started by Fox Restaurant Group in Phoenix, a respected group with varied concepts. It started North Italia, which was then acquired by Cheesecake Factory’s parent company. That certainly gave me pause – Cheesecake Factory is not one of my favorites.
But there is nothing Cheesecakey or even Factorish about North Italia.
My companion and I began with a pizza called The Pig, which may be named for its toppings or for the person who orders it. It featured a thin but not too crispy crust with a thin layer of sauce plus Italian sausage, little cups of pepperoni, soppressata and mozzarella cheese. It was much more than an appetizer – we enjoyed the leftovers later.
For my main course I chose the Bolognese, listed as a house specialty. It had tagliatelle pasta tossed with a light meat sauce and topped with grated grana padano cheese. The noodles could have spend a minute or so more cooking but otherwise it was quite good.
My companion had the Diver Scallops served on risotto blended with parmesan. It also had bits of butternut squash, leaves of Brussels sprouts, pancetta pieces and frizzled onions. The scallops were large and beautifully seared.
One thing you’ll find a little startling is that each item on the menu lists the calorie content. They’re eye openers. As you may know, restaurants with more than 10 locations are required to list calories – it’s why the Winter Park Houston’s was rebranded to the smaller chain Hillstone. (North Italia currently has more than a couple of dozen.) I understand the reasoning, but sometimes you just don’t want to know.
And the atmosphere of North Italia does not scream chain restaurant. It’s a large space with a big open kitchen at one end. There is a prominent bar area that flows into the dining room. High-top tables, booths and freestanding tables are set up throughout.
It’s nice to see this space busy again. To that point, parking is a nightmare here, but North Italia offers complimentary valet parking out front. We discovered that because one of the staff members was kind enough to let us know that. Another example of good service.