North By Southwest: Mamma Mia! We’re Fired Up About North Italia at The Point

A slice of Italy (and more) at North Italia in Plaza El Segundo


I worked in restaurants—fine, fancy, foodie restaurants—for 17 years of my life. When I reference those years, I usually omit the six-week sentence I served at what must have been one of Olive Garden’s original locations. Ah, Olive Garden!

It was my third job the summer I was 17 and desperately saving for college. I remember with fondness the diligent Indian immigrant dad who cheerfully churned out those limitless breadsticks, carefully lathering each par-baked torpedo with some scary butter substitute. I think he must have painted half a million of those in his Olive Garden career, and he also sent his kids to college.

I remember with less fondness the mean waiter who would spit in the bowl of guests who asked for too many refills of those soulless salads. I also remember being terrified of more than one guest ordering the dreaded “Tour of Italy” because the sheer weight of two of these sampler plates was too much for me to carry out myself, and I would have to beg one of the busboys to carry the other end of the tray.

Fast-forward at least 20 years (or so), and the concept of quick-casual Italian has a new contender: Fox Restaurant Group’s North Italia. While Olive Garden is clearly the Goliath—it’s the single largest depletion point for restaurant wine in the U.S., for one thing—North Italia is a rising David worth noting.

With 10 locations and counting, North Italia reminded me that a chain restaurant doesn’t have to be generic. It also reminded me that we as a nation have higher collective standards for quality fare these days, whether due to Food Network, YouTube or simply the evolution of our national palate. Americans increasingly want authentic food, such that the days of food mills like Chili’s, TGI Fridays and, yes, that temple to overeating—Olive Garden—may be numbered. Why would you eat at any of those places when you could eat at Lemonade or True Kitchen or North Italia for about the same money?

North Italia’s two local outposts include the wildly popular location at The Point in El Segundo and a brand-new outlet just off the Promenade in Santa Monica. Each location greets us with Italian exhortations to “eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, sleep when you’re tired.” I’m not sure how that translates to a motto for a restaurant, but I digress.

It is a good idea to come hungry and thirsty, as portions are ample and the cocktails, beer and wine flow freely at North Italia. I liked the open, airy feel of the restaurant where one can watch daytime pasta chefs prepping, pinching and crimping during lunch or gaze at the line cooks madly mopping their brows during the dinner rush. All is neatly organized in the open kitchen where colorful cans of DiNapoli tomatoes and bins of arranged citrus add to the décor.

While both the lunch and dinner menus offer a few ambitious entrées like grilled branzino with fennel or scallops with pancetta gremolata, North Italia is really all about the carbs. A menu asterisk points out: “While we offer gluten-free items, our kitchen is not gluten-free.” One might assume such in an Italian restaurant, even in California.

Come here for the pasta, house-made daily and quite good, and for what may be one of my new favorite pizza crusts. I am loyal to Neapolitan charred crusts like the ones featured at 800 Degrees or at Locale90, but at North Italia the crusts are just a little more chewy and a little less burnt—more mainstream, to be blunt. I loved the prosciutto pizza with mission figs, goat cheese and arugula, although I was tempted by a pie called simply “the Pig”—surely a meat-lover’s paradise.

The strozzapreti pasta (“priest strangler”) served with tender chicken, roasted mushrooms, toasted pine nuts and spinach was pleasantly light on the parmesan cream—the antithesis of a gelatinous Olive Garden bowl where the protein is inversely proportional to the sauce volume. This is how Italians actually eat pasta—in very small portions and in combinations where the pasta and sauce are secondary to the meats or vegetables present. We Americans are the ones who tend to boil a giant vat of pasta and cover it in an ocean of sauce, such that everything else gets swamped.

I also very much enjoyed their version of arancini—the classic fried risotto balls. No matter that strozzapreti originated in central Italy and arancini is most common in Sicily. I’ll forgive the inclusion of non-Northern Italian cuisine at North Italia, as long as they do it this well.

Service is cheerful, efficient and sincere. An effort was made to include some local beers in addition to the mandatory Peroni lager and Moretti bottles. I wish they’d tried harder on the wine list though. Like Olive Garden, they are trying to standardize all their wine offerings, which is challenging given byzantine distribution laws. The net result is a very boring list with just a few Italian wines made in massive quantities.

The server did belatedly mention that they have a reserve list hiding somewhere, so perhaps there’s some better stuff available than what is featured on the by-the-glass menu. And why offer not one but FOUR California chardonnays by the glass and FOUR cabs? Geez. North Italia needs to trust that its clientele doesn’t need to be babied like that anymore—the authenticity of their food deserves more authentic wine pairings.

From date night to business lunches to family fare, the menu at North Italia can accommodate just about any dining need. I liked this place, and the Santa Monica location is dangerously near my husband’s office. So much for that resolution to eat less pasta and bread! When it’s this good, it’s very hard to say no.

@The Point
840 S. Sepulveda Blvd. #110 in El Segundo