Restaurant Reviews

North Italia Combines Chain Restaurants’ Lower Prices With a Chef-Driven Menu

The merry spinach tortelloni at North Italia, shaped like tiny, emerald-colored pillbox hats, were as appealing in the mouth as to the eyes. Wilted spinach and pleasantly chewy slices of mushrooms were scattered amid the ricotta-filled pillows of pasta. A dash of saba, made from grape must — freshly squeezed grape juice — bolstered the mild flavors with its honeyed appeal.

North Italia, in the BLVD Place complex off Post Oak and San Felipe, is so slick and polished that there’s a suspicion that it’s a glossy front — one of those trendy places that put their money into the design instead of into the kitchen. There’s a line under the “o” in “North” that seems to be a purely stylistic choice. The uniformly attractive employees call the place “North” for short, and it’s just standard pronunciation. “Welcome to North!” they say. It’s a bit disconcerting, like getting on first-name terms too soon with a teacher or a police officer.

The interior design is rustic in the meticulous sense. It’s carefully designed to appear like an Italian farmhouse and tiptoes up to the edge of being campy without falling off the cliff. The business ends of nine pitchforks are mounted on a wall, perfectly spaced in rows of three. Metal feed pails are installed as sinks in the bathrooms.

It’s a contrast with the modern kitchen protected behind a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. A huge, handsome meat slicer painted in glossy red sits up front with a leg of prosciutto at the ready at all times. Along a long countertop, employees assemble dish after dish while a brick pizza oven contains its roaring flames in the back.

Woe be unto diners who fail to make a reservation. The hostess will check her electronic tablet and somberly pronounce a 45- to 90-minute wait for a seat. Pro tip: guests who foolishly drop by on a whim — not that we would ever do that (*cough* more than once *cough*) — might while away the time over one of the many craft beers on tap at nearby Whole Foods. It’s close enough to the restaurant to scamper over when the text message arrives that a table is available — or so we’ve heard.

That long wait is no guarantee that the seat isn’t at the community table near the bar. It’s a lesson in planning ahead because when you’re seated there, any hopes for a private conversation are futile. That’s fine for people who like to talk to strangers. Whether on weeknights or weekends, the place is slam-packed to the gills. With that many people to take care of, it looks as if any minute North Italia is going to drop the ball.

The thing is, it never does. North Italia seems to have successfully combined the better aspects of small restaurant chains (like competitive prices and the ability to handle a high volume of customers) with the quality ingredients and kitchen techniques found in smaller, chef-driven restaurants.

Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts is the owner of North Italia as well as sister chain True Food Kitchen, which earned a mixed review from us in January (“Stick to the Fish and Pizza at True Food Kitchen and You’ll Be Fine”). It’s run by Sam Fox, who is no slouch, as evidenced by his semifinalist status earlier this year for the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur award. (He didn’t make it to the finals.) He owns several other concepts that all originated in Phoenix, so he must be doing something right.

North Italia is a better experience than True Food Kitchen, partly because dinner never starts with an explanation of the nutritional theory behind the menu. No, this is carbohydrate heaven. Tender pasta is made fresh in-house, while the wood-fired oven produces one nicely charred pizza after another. By the way, the crust style here — small slices that are both thin and chewy — seems to owe as much of its heritage to New York as it does to Napoli. Personal crust preferences aside, the fig and prosciutto version with prosciutto di Parma, dried fig, goat cheese and arugula was in perfect balance. Sweet, salty, creamy, meaty and yeasty flavors all pushed and tugged at each other, with no single one gaining the upper hand. Even the arugula, with its tendency toward bitter dominance, was restrained.

The other reason North Italia is a better experience than True Food is that there wasn’t a single loser among all the dishes we ordered. They’re all good, and a few dishes are heavenly, like the grilled cauliflower that is so much more than the name indicates. It’s a composed dish with not just run-of-the-mill white cauliflower but with purple and Romanesco broccoli in its funky, fractal-like shapes.

Pencil-thin stalks of tender baby asparagus come along for the ride, and while dishes topped with a fried egg have become ubiquitous, the silken, flowing yolk is a welcome dose of sunshine. That and a touch of cream dosed with salty, dense pancetta bring it all together. If there’s a single complaint, it’s that a bit too much lemon tended to take over with a surfeit of sourness. The cost of this dressed-up rendition is $10, and it’s a value. There are far too few really good, composed vegetable dishes in Houston, and this is a welcome addition.

The salads are quite good as well. The seasonal vegetable salad is not just another tired, fibrous kale salad — the health-conscious darling of the moment. It’s lightly dressed in a sherry vinaigrette and adorned with delicate shards of almond. Bits of dates strewn throughout lend molasses-like sweetness but never become cloying. There are other fun ingredients to fork up as well, including roasted cauliflower, Clementine orange slices and avocado. Toothsome farro and quinoa give the salad a bit of heft. It’s a treasure trove that seems like a healthy choice without being austere. The only flaw was two clusters of frisée browning at the ends. The offenders were plucked away and set off to the side.

North Italia doesn’t seem to skimp on ingredients. It certainly doesn’t pull punches with the tomatoes. The deep-fried risotto balls known in Italian cuisine as arancini come in a thick bath of crushed San Marzanos flavored with a wealth of garlic and dried herbs, while the tomato bruschetta sports rounds of fresh Romas marinated in Campari. Campari, a bitter amaro, also has a whole lot of sugar in it. The tomatoes take on much of that sweetness, but it’s more interesting than offensive.

Regrettably, the cocktail program isn’t up to par with the food. A Manhattan variant called Quiet Italian Gentleman includes Amaretto, but no one seems to have thought of reducing the vermouth to compensate for the sweetness of the additional liqueur. The end result is only a little more appealing than a dose of Robitussin, with fewer benefits.

The I.G.T. (which stands for Italia Gin & Tonic, a bit mystifying since there is no actual gin in the recipe) is better. It’s pretty and floral, with Dimmi Liquore di Milano (an apricot- and peach-infused Italian aperitif), lemon zest, fresh basil and Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic. It’s rather wimpy, though, and would benefit from the backbone that missing gin would provide.

Instead, go for the list of both Italian and domestic wines, where the by-the-glass menu gives you a choice between a standard five-ounce pour or a terzo. That means “a third” in Italian. In other words, it’s a third of the bottle, which is roughly eight ounces. The terzo pour is a better deal. For example, the Le Salette Valpolicella was $9 for a five-ounce pour or $12 for an eight-ounce pour. The smaller glass works out to $1.80 per ounce while the bigger pour comes to $1.50 per ounce.

Servers here are well-trained and efficient. Count on them to refill glasses, move plates around and box up leftovers as needed. Overall, North Italia’s prices are quite reasonable. Most items cost less than $20.

The desserts are quite good and — even though it’s going to be tough to exercise restraint during the savory courses — guests should save room for them. There’s a salted caramel budino (that’s Italian for “custard” or “pudding”) that isn’t kidding around about the salt. That’s quite fine. Why have salt in the dessert if it’s not going to be significant? Subtlety is for the meek. It’s a satiny sweet, creamy experience that frolics on the taste buds.

The olive oil cake stands in almost direct contrast as a symphony of citrus and tart berry flavors. It’s an entirely different kind of dessert with a big quenelle of mascarpone cream on top to soothe the tartness of accompanying strawberry and orange slices. The cake is tender and picks up plenty of moisture from the fruit surrounding it.

North Italia is proof that even a chain is capable of providing high-quality food and personable service. It just takes the right ingredients, equipment, processes and training. With those factors and the reasonable prices, it’s no mystery why the place is packed all the time.

North Italia
1700 Post Oak #190, 281-605-4030. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Tomato bruschetta $8
Arancini $9
Grilled cauliflower $10
Seasonal vegetable salad $11
Fig and prosciutto pizza $14
Spinach tortelloni $16
Grilled branzino $27
Seared diver scallops $25
Quiet Italian Gentleman $10
The I.G.T. $10
Olive oil cake $6
Salted caramel budino $6
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook