North Italia defies expectations
Italian restaurant at the Point development serves remarkably good handmade pastas
Whenever I experience a new restaurant, I ask myself some obvious questions: do they show basic competence at food and service, create a pleasant environment, and deliver value for money. Since I also appreciate a bit of culinary daring, I also hope they’ll bring something new to the table, literally as well as metaphorically.
My expectations for some are lower than others, and they were pretty much subterranean when I went to North Italia at The Point. A corporate-owned place in a mall location, serving Italian food in a neighborhood with lots of options along that line, did not set my pulse racing. Neither did the ridiculously loud interior, so we waited for a table on the quieter outdoor patio. It took much longer than estimated and we considered going somewhere else, so we were hungry and grouchy when we were finally seated. I ordered some zucchini chips so we would have something to snack on while we figured out our order.
Those zucchini chips were the first bright spot of the evening, razor-thin, crisp, and still hot from the fryer. That last bit is important because we were at the diagonal from the kitchen in a large, crowded restaurant and vegetables cut this thin lose heat quickly, so our server had done some serious hustling to get them to us. The portion wasn’t as gigantic as it looked given the rippling that frying causes, and we scoured the bottom of the bowl for the last remnants of vegetables and herbs.
The next two items to arrive, an order of calamari with arugula and lemon vinaigrette and a Tuscan kale salad, also raised our expectations. We had ordered the calamari because it’s usually a benchmark, a way to evaluate the kitchen’s execution of a standard item. This wasn’t standard at all – rather than a heap of fried squid with a few greens on the side, it was a salad in which large pieces of crisp-fried seafood had been added at the last minute. This item should stay on the menu because it was excellent, but it should be listed as a salad because it’s not the finger food snack you would expect from the category.
The kale salad also hit the marks for flavor, the apples, pistachios, and charred grapes adding sweet, smoky and fruity flavors to the parmesan and greens. Chopping the kale finely and mixing it satisfied the person at our table who doesn’t like the texture of raw kale but enjoys the flavor, and it succeeded on every level.
The main courses were unfortunately a bit more uneven. The radiatori spiral pasta with short rib arrived with a fresh horseradish sauce that was overwhelming. I like hot, peppery flavors but was happy to have just a bite of this. The strozzapreti — a type of pasta translates as “priest-strangler” — is made with long, thick pasta tubes with chicken, mushrooms, spinach, and toasted pinenuts in a parmesan cream sauce. In this case I found the sauce decent but a bit thin. All the ingredients here have mild flavors and were in balance, but a sauce with a little more cream and body might have made them more interesting. It was successful but not outstanding.
The other two dishes we tried on this trip, squid ink malfatti pasta with shrimp and a pizza with prosciutto, fig, arugula, and goat cheese, were successes. The goat cheese and arugula were added after the pizza was baked so that they were neither melted in one case or wilted in the other, and both added textures to a perfectly made pie. The crust was Italian rather than New York style, slightly soft and bready at the bottom with a puffy raised rim that had what the Italians call “leopard spots” from the oven. It’s pro level pizza that probably doesn’t do well in a to-go box because it’s best straight from the oven, but it was a delight.
The malfatti with squid ink was another subtle dish that was very well made, the pasta tossed in a seafood and tomato broth that included mint, fennel pollen, and Calabrian chili. Though the pasta was cooked just a tiny bit more than I like, the sauce made me inclined to forgive this, because it was one of the best I’ve had in a long while. There was enough chili to give a spicy aftertaste after a few bites, and the mint and musky pollen each added distinct notes that I savored down to the last bite.
The wine selection here is good but on this trip we enjoyed cocktails from their craft bar. The Amaro d’Amici based on Bourbon, Fernet, and honey managed a great balance of sweet and fruity bitters, as did a similar rye cocktail called Quiet Italian Gentleman. They also make a fine Cosmopolitan, a drink I rarely order but that is very good when well-made.
For dessert we had a salted caramel budino, an Italian pudding that arrived topped with whipped cream, and an olive oil cake that arrived surrounded with fruit in syrup. The budino was very good, but we liked the olive oil cake even better. Using olive oil rather than butter when making a cake gives it a fine fruity flavor, though they are occasionally heavy. Both desserts were light but rich, and though they looked small they were good split between our party of four.
Dinner for four with one drink each ran $175, which is above average for the South Bay for entrees of three pastas and a pizza. Prime locations come at a cost, and there are few more prime than this one. North Italia showed some flair that certainly exceeded my expectations and I expect the place to do well, but for everyday Italian meals they haven’t won me away from my local favorites.
(Note: This review ran in our paper edition in September of 2016 but was not put online at that time. Some seasonal items may have changed.)
North Italia is at 840 South Sepulveda in El Segundo. Open 11 a.m. -9:30 p.m. Mo-Fri, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri, 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. Sa-Su. Full bar, private lot, wheelchair access good, patio dining. Interior noise level high, exterior moderate. Reservations recommended. Menu at northitaliarestaurant.com, phone 310-469-7695.
by Richard Foss