When we first heard that North restaurant was undergoing a makeover, fear gripped us - well, specifically our stomachs.
The irresistibly crunchy zucca chips, would they make the cut? What about the most amazing beef dish to ever grace a restaurant plate: the meltingly tender short ribs in a decadent red-wine sauce, made even more indulgent with a pairing of creamy mascarpone polenta? Please still be on the menu, please, please.
After an $800,000 redesign last September, North's revamp to North Fattoria Italiana is intended to evoke a Tuscan farmhouse, from the sprawling space to the menu. Of course, this is a farmhouse as presented by visionary restaurateur Sam Fox. So, it's sports sleek - red accents from the glossy range hood that runs the length of the exhibition kitchen to the hand-cranked Berkel slicer for the salumi boards.
And, of course, nothing says "farmhouse" quite like plaid-clad servers.
For those who loved the old North, there's plenty to love about the new North. It may look different, but doesn't feel appreciably different. Service is still gracious and efficient. It boasts plenty of promising menu additions - different pizzas, new handmade pastas and hand-cured meats. Thankfully, dishes from when the restaurant opened in 2003 are still around, including those zucca chips.
The zucca chips ($5) - in all their crisp, take-that-boring-potato-chips! glory - are exactly what an appetizer should be. The whisper-thin rounds, fried to supreme crunchiness and simply dressed in salt and parsley, are so addictive they should have their own 12-step program. After polishing off a bowl, you're fired up for the next thing, like perhaps a salumi board?
Parked in front of the open kitchen is a long, wooden table featuring stacks of fat, rectangular loaves from Bakehouse Bread Company and that fire-engine red salami slicer that shaves off thinner-than-paper ribbons of cured meats. It's fun to watch the sausages get cranked through the slicer, and even more fun to devour 'em.
The chef's board ($16) that arrived at our table featured a wooden plank covered end-to-end with goodies. Thick-cut, airy slices of bread flanked a veritable feast: a small silver cup of green olives, a handful of sweet and spicy nuts; a pesto-topped round of mild crescenza cheese; a square of kicky white cheddar; gently pickled baby bell peppers with a subtle vinegar-y bite; mostarda, an Italian condiment similar to a chutney that sported sweet apricots and golden raisins and two mounds of salami, one mild and one a crazy Calabrese exploding with peppery hotness. Think badass pepperoni - that's what this tasted like. But a spread of the low-key crescenza and a dollop of sweet, fruity mostarda toned things down to a pleasant burn.
We couldn't pick a pasta, so our server recommended the spinach tortelloni ($15). Green as a perfectly mowed lawn, the pasta was tender with a pillowy filling of melt-in-your-mouth ricotta and mascarpone. Set atop a bed of fresh spinach, lightly wilted from the pasta's heat, and sprinkled with shavings of delicate Pecorino and Grana Padano, the dish was pulled together with an herb-flecked brown butter sauce. It tasted rich but didn't feel the least bit heavy.
The pizza portion of the menu sports an intriguing assortment of unusually-topped pies, ranging from guanciale (pig cheek) to egg and broccolini. "The Pig" ($15) caught our attention.
Cut into six slices, the pizza's deep brown crust was bubbled around the edges. It had snap and chew and the simple tomato sauce let the assortment of meats - pepperoni, soppressata, salami and housemade sausage - take center stage. It wasn't as spicy as the Calabrese, but the pizza packed a good kick.
Now, to answer the earlier question about the fate of the short ribs. They are on the menu.
The description sounded familiar: "braised beef short rib - roasted root vegetables, white polenta" ($23). Is it the same, we asked, hopefully? After a quick consult with Executive Chef Chris Curtiss, who oversees all the North eateries, our server told us that no, this dish was not from the old North - but, he smiled, the newer version was better.
A hefty single rib sat atop a bed of creamy white polenta, rich with the addition of mascarpone cheese, with scattered strips of roasted carrots and parsnips. So far so good - those were components of the old entree. Hmmm. No sign of sauce. The meat was incredibly tender with a deep beef flavor but - compared with the previous red wine-braised version that smacked of buttery richness - this was a one-note wonder. We loved the complexity of the old-style ribs. So, Mr. Fox, consider this the official kickoff for the Bring Back the Original North Short Ribs campaign. With apologies to Chili's, we want our short ribs back, short ribs back, short ribs back.
One thing we love about the Fox dining experience, is that no matter which eatery you go to, you're going to get good food, knowledgeable servers and have a pleasant meal in a hip, modern setting. It's one of those sureties in life. So, we were caught off guard by the glitch during dessert. It took a little longer than usual for the sized-to-share tiramisu and bombolini (each $6) to arrive. The tiramisu, charmingly served in a large, clear glass ramekin featured a lovely Kahlua-flavored, mascarpone-ladyfinger concoction playfully blanketed with crunchy little chocolate balls the size of BBs.
The quartet of rolled-in-sugar golden doughnut puffs came with a lovely pool of lemon curd-topped, vanilla-scented mascarpone. The sauce by itself could be a stand-alone dessert. The doughnuts were light, airy with a crisp exterior, but each and every one was raw in the middle. With the dim lighting, we thought at first that the gooeyness was a filling. Nope, the nearly golfball-sized treats weren't quite cooked all the way. As Homer Simpson might say, "Dough!"
Sorry. Couldn't resist.
North Fattoria Italiana
• Where: 2995 E. Skyline Drive, 299-1600, www.foxrc.com
• Hours: Brunch, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Monday - Friday; mid-day, 3 - 5 p.m. daily. Dinner,
5 to 10 p.m. Sunday - Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
• Noise level: With that expansive, high ceiling and wood floor, there's not a lot of buffer for the music and conversations, so it's on the loud side.
• Alcohol: A wine list that covers the bases, local and Italian beers along with several specialty mixed drinks.
• Family call: A reasonable kids' menu, $5 entrees with drink included.
• Vegetarian options: Yes.
• Gluten free: Yes.
• Price range: $12-$33 for dinner entrees.
Contact Kristen Cook at email@example.com or 573-4194.