1442 2nd Street
Santa Monica has a new restaurant row –Second Street is becoming a hub of amazing foodie spots. These are generally corporately owned and highly produced ventures. The team that brought us Sugarfish, Jerry Greenberg and Clement Mok have brought their vision of burgers in the form of HIHO Burgers which is next door to UOVO – a soon to be opened pasta diner that imports their handmade pasta direct from Italy.
At the other end of Second Street, in the Santa Monica Place mall is TrueFood Kitchen created by the Fox Restaurant Concepts, who also owns and operates Flower Child in the Laemmle Monica Film Center. Fox also opened North Italia about two months ago, and this week I dropped in to do a tasting and get the backstory on the restaurant.
North Italia took over the space of what is the Wal*Mart of Italian – Buca Di Beppo. Buca may have had its fans, but I wasn’t one of them and I’m glad they’ve been replaced with a much higher quality, far more elegant and open environment. The first thing I noticed when I walked in, was how light, bright and open the entire restaurant is. From the sidewalk I could see all the way through to the back of the kitchen in this huge space.
The frontage of the restaurant is an outdoor patio that can be separated off for semi-private parties. It backs up to a large bar and then the wide open dining room is overlooking the buzzing kitchen. Designed with light walls, and a classic Italian saying above the kitchen windows, I found the tables and chairs to be comfortable and inviting.
The general manager, Jonas Brewis came to meet me and we chatted for about 20 minutes so I could learn about the company he’s been with for about 4 years, “this tour of duty.” He worked for the company as a busboy / server in college, and then took a break before returning to build a career with them and is now a general manager. As the face of the restaurant, he couldn’t have been better cast. His strawberry red hair and full beard give him a warm and impish glow. I saw how he treated his staff, and if as they say that’s a great indicator who a person is, then Jonas is a kind and thoughtful soul.
When I asked what the secret was for North Italia, Brewis said, “Well, the entire Fox Restaurant Concepts company is about hospitality. Both for our customers, and for our staff. We strive to train and train and train, and then promote from within. Our employees, about 100 in this restaurant, are a main focus for us. As full time employees they are eligible for health insurance and education assistance.”
Kitchens tend to be family affairs in the restaurant industry. When you hire one person, it’s probable that you’ll have a cousin, a brother or a child working in some other part of the restaurant soon, and that holds true for North Italia. They have a Daddy/ Daughter pair, a couple of cousins and a set of twins. In a unique turn of events, Executive Chef Sammy Sleman who trained at the Culinary Institute of American in New York, has a twin brother down the street at Flower Child – Chef Zach Sleman.
The menu has a wide selection of appetizers, salads, pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and mains. The pasta is almost all house made daily, but for the gluten free selections. This is not a place for the vegetarians and vegans – the selections are essentially a couple of salads, though I’m sure if you wanted a pasta with olive oil and garlic they could make it for you. I tried a sample of the homemade pesto, which is always a good test of a kitchen’s ability – they passed – it was so vibrant green and the fragrant basil billowed up to my delight that I look forward to returning for a simple meal of pesto over the radiatori.
This restaurant is a carnivore’s delight. From a pizza named The Pig, which is spicy pepperoni, soppressata, and sausage, to the house specialty Bolognese there is a wonderful variety of options that cover the spectrum from light snacks of crispy calamari in a unique arugula and grilled lemon vinaigrette to a Short Rib Radiatori that is to die for.
I asked both Jonas and Sammy what their favorite menu item was, and they both said the Short Rib Radiatori. This is a pasta shaped like an old school radiator, and the crevices trap the parmesan and horseradish cream sauce like sponges. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. I love horseradish, but on prime rib, not on pasta. Until today. Oh. My. God. This was an explosion of flavor and textures that was off the chain amazing. The seven hour braised short ribs were luscious and tender, sweet with a bit of caramel bite to them that was counterbalanced by the tang of the horseradish and saltiness of the parmesan cream sauce. The housemade pasta was done perfectly al dente – not an easy feat with pasta.
I chose to counter the heft of the pasta and meat with the grilled cauliflower and baby asparagus, which made for a delightful play of crunch and palate cleansing as I inhaled the pasta and short rib meat.
North Italia has a nice selection of wines by the glass and bottle. The local beers are from Stone Brewing, Firestone Walker, Green Flash and Hess Brewing, plus the usual suspects of Moretti, Peroni and Stella. They do have a selection of specialty cocktails thanks to their full bar. The Amaro D’amici was suggested by Jonas, which is a bourbon and bitters concoction but for something lighter there is the Mozzafiato a blend of Vodka, cucumber, lime, chareau aloe vera liqueur and green chartreuse.
I’m a dessert guy, and as I was touring the kitchen I noted the flourless hazelnut cakes that were being unmolded so Jonas sent one out for me to try. The salted caramel ice cream, was melting into the warm cake so I had to work fast….it was a superb dessert.
North Italia also has a special Brunch Menu that made me wish I had stopped by on Sunday. The Nonna Casserole of torn bread, Italian sausage baked in red sauce with eggs sounds amazing, but the Baked French Toast which is more like a bread pudding of torn lemon brioche with cream and eggs, topped with a cinnamon sugar and vanilla maple syrup and berries and whipped cream looks like a death by sugar dream. If you prefer donuts for breakfast they serve lemon curd stuffed homemade donuts on a vanilla mascarpone that I can’t wait to try.
There is no private dining room for smaller events, but if you want to call ahead I’m sure they can cordon off an area for your party.
I’m looking forward to bringing my pasta loving friends back for an evening of great food. I found nothing at North Italia that I didn’t like. The staff was friendly and attentive to my every want, without being overly cloying and annoying.
Overall I’d give North Italia a 4 stars out of 5, but that’s only because I didn’t try the pizza or the brunch, so I have to save some room … Prices range from $8-14 for small plates, $14-17 for pizzas and pastas are $17 – 22, dinner mains are $21-40.