Among OC’s hundreds of burger joints, bountiful Asian restaurants, and seemingly endless Mexican food options, Italian restaurants don’t seem to get as much love from the hipster masses. But here comes North Italia in Irvine, as the Arizona-based mini-chain serves up some high-quality modern Italian grub.
It ain’t the old-school, hearty Italian you’d expect to find in a family-owned restaurant featuring recipes passed down through the generations, but North’s fare and prices hold up against even the best of the overpriced date-friendly spots that dot Orange County.
The setting is pretty much what you’d expect from a “modern rustic” restaurant. There’s a slight farmhouse theme going on, but the bulk of the glass and metalwork looks like a nicely put-together Ikea combination. It’s not a bad thing, and the large open space makes for quite a friendly venue for parties big and small.
Among the appetizers, the crisp calamari ($13) is the best. The breading is light and flaky, rather than the dense fried chicken-like coating that many squid plates use. Then, when you add in the use of lemon vinaigrette and arugula, it becomes a zesty calamari/salad hybrid worth trying. The artichoke ($12) and meatballs ($11) are both solid choices as well, but, again: the calamari is best.
If you’re only getting one main dish at North, get the pizza. The prosciutto ($16) is evenly sweet and savory (prosciutto, figs, arugula, and goat cheese) while the classic margherita ($14) shows off the simple highlights of North’s restaurant-style pies. The sauce is heavy and flavorful, but its crust is its finest feature. The slight burn around the edges of the pizza gives it a little extra crispiness and flavor that so much SoCal pizza misses.
The pastas at North are made in the restaurant, and they’re often thicker and richer than the store-bought variety. The short rib (whether as an entree for $31 or over pasta for $21) is so tender it turns into putty your fork before you get it to your mouth, and although squid ink pasta isn’t for everyone, it’s also an option ($22) along with all of the standard macaroni dishes like bolognese ($19) and spaghetti with meatballs ($17).
Of the main entrees, the chicken parmesan ($20) is juicy and well-seasoned, but the New York strip ($38) and grilled branzino ($29) never impressed. As previously stated, order the short rib if you’re looking for red meat, and the diver scallops ($29) are probably your best bet for seafood outside of the calamari appetizer.
About a dozen cocktails new and old all fall within the $9-14 range, while roughly the same number of beers (local, domestic, and imported) all cost roughly $6 apiece. If you’re only getting one dessert, go with either the bombolini or the salted caramel budino ($8 each). The first is their version of fresh-made oversized doughnut holes with a lemon curd that balances the sweetness, while the latter is perfect dessert. If you want a lighter option, the olive oil cake ($8) seems almost healthy, and chocolate lovers will devour the dark chocolate tart ($9).
North Italia might not make the news if North was yet another Mexican place, but check it out at least once. Especially the budino—hey, it’s budino, God’s perfect dessert.
North Italia. 2957 Michelson Dr., Irvine. 949-629-7060. www.northitaliarestaurant.com.