If you don’t have the budget to go to Italy to mangia, you can still find unique Italian dishes here in Southern California. North Italia, the modern Italian concept from restaurateur Sam Fox, has locations in Santa Monica, El Segundo and Irvine.
Regional brand chef Sam Sleman oversees the innovative menus. He says, “I love to cook because food is something that brings people together around a table. It’s something I’m passionate about. Preparing a meal and sharing it with friends and family is what life — and Italian food — is all about.”
North Italia’s variety of pizzas is a highlight on the menu. “We make our pizza using artisanal hand-stretched dough, and it is truly one of our house specialties,” says Sleman, whom you may remember from Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen. “We always use the finest, freshest ingredients we can source.”
The restaurant makes pizza dough twice daily, and also has gluten-free crust options.
“Pizza is really important to us and there’s a lot of love that goes into making them,” Sleman says. “Ten inches in length, the pizza is perfect for serving one person. But the beauty of our menu is that you can order a range of items and share them family-style — that way you get to try lots of different things.”
One of Sleman’s favorite activities is to plan the daily chef’s special pizza. “It’s fun to experiment with different flavor combinations and profiles,” he says.
Another must-try is the white truffle garlic bread, which is “definitely one of my favorite dishes,” Sleman enthuses. “We make the ricotta in-house, which is super special; most restaurants don’t do that. It’s an intensive process but really worth it for the flavor profiles at the end. That’s served with mozzarella, grana padano, herbs and garlic bread for the perfect savory and salty appetizer.”
Even with the more traditional dishes, Sleman enjoys the detail that North Italia puts into each individual plate. “For our chicken Parmesan, we pound, season and bread each piece separately before it’s cooked. Once golden brown, we top it with our house-made tomato sauce, melted mozzarella and provolone cheese, and serve the dish with a side of rigatoni pasta smothered in our rich Parmesan cream sauce. Some fresh herbs on top and your day is complete!”
While visiting each location, Sleman works on incorporating more seasonal produce into the menus. “It’s one of our core principles at North Italia, so after every menu change, we start planning for the next season.”
Sleman is inspired by the vibe in each location. “We always create beautiful outdoor spaces for our guests to enjoy their food in and have an open kitchen layout so our guests can see the excitement being put into every single dish.”
Embracing the outdoors is really integral to the Santa Monica restaurant, which is two blocks from the beach. “The decor is beautiful, with open airy ceilings and a great sidewalk patio; the environment is very welcoming and relaxing. We’ve been open for over a year now, and it's been really exciting to become a part of the local community.”
The Irvine location also has a lively, inviting environment, Sleman says. “In Irvine, we have a beautiful, expansive patio with a mixture of high-top and low-top seating, umbrellas and an outdoor fireplace, which creates an upscale yet comfortable feel. On the inside, ... drawing from our love for the outdoors, we've adorned our walls with fun multicolored surfboards and a large bike-inspired art piece.”
The majority of Irvine’s employees who started when the restaurant opened about three years ago are still there. “The team impresses me by how detailed and cohesive they work, especially with how busy the restaurant consistently is," Sleman says. "Before each service, the cooks come together and speak about the day ahead of them. Irvine has some of the most inspirational and exciting lineups I have ever witnessed.”
Beverage director Mat Snapp updates the cocktail menu frequently. A new drink on his menu is the Black Apple Manhattan, which is made with a house-infused, apple-soaked Redemption bourbon, Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters, served in a chilled coupe glass and garnished with an apple disc and a Luxardo cherry.
The apple-infused bourbon is made by soaking Fuji and Gala apples for 48 hours in bourbon.
“Seasonality and high-quality ingredients are one of our driving principles here, and I always want to bring something new, fresh and creative to the table, literally,” Snapp says.
He also likes to bring local flavor and regional favorites to any new menu he is working on.
“Colder weather begs for fall flavors. Bourbon loves cinnamon and vanilla, so we infuse an Italian brandy with mulling spice and use it as a great background for autumn whiskey sours.”
To that end, Snapp recently created the apple bourbon sour, made with that house-infused, apple-soaked Redemption bourbon, mulling spice, Gran Gala liqueur, lemon and honey. The cocktail is served in a bucket glass, garnished with cinnamon and an apple slice.
His new cocktail, Life in Italics, is made with Aviation Gin, Italicus Rosolio, peach bitters, lavender blossom and a splash of Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic water.
Here are recipes for two favorite cocktails that Snapp concocted for the fall season.
Apple Bourbon Sour
0.5 oz lemon juice
0.5 oz honey syrup
1 oz Gran Gala
1 oz apple-infused bourbon
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Combine all ingredients above in a shaker and give a hard shake, strain over ice and garnish with apple slice and cinnamon. Serve in a bucket glass.
Black Apple Manhattan
0.5 oz Carpano Antica
0.5 oz Fernet Branca
2 oz apple-infused bourbon
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients above in a cocktail mixing glass and stir together. Serve in a chilled coupe glass and garnish with an apple disc and Luxardo cherry.
For the apple bourbon infusion:
Per liter of bourbon, soak 400 grams of diced Fuji and/or Gala apples for 48 hours while stirring daily. When straining, let fruit drip dry to extract all the bourbon.