The chaos of clustered tables and tasteful music seamlessly comes together with the sight of servers weaving their way through the crowds, in and out of the fishbowl kitchen, where tomato cans, citrus baskets and sugar boxes decorate an even more fast-paced scene. It’s classic LA, and as always you can’t believe the place is this packed on a Tuesday night [does anyone have a family in this town?]. But it’s fun, friendly, upbeat, with everyone at the heated outdoor patio and the communal bar tables doing as the Italians do: sharing camaraderie over food.
North Italia, which is rapidly expanding with locations across the US, prides itself in cooking from scratch. Everything down to the pizza dough and pasta is done in-house, a tall order considering that the menu is substantially broader than what you’ll find in your typical trattoria. From there, North Italia brings in a touch of American influence to make things interesting, adding a few extra ingredients here and there for a progressive approach to classic Italian.
Take their garlic bread, which reinvents the timeless dish by piling two-bite bread cubes into a cast-iron, dousing it in butter, olive and truffle oil, then baking it with mozzarella and ricotta. The result is a small mountain of decadence, perfectly textured. Then there’s the roasted mushroom tortelloni, impossibly meaty in a rich cream sauce, complemented with hazelnut and caramelized sweet potato. And the diver scallops, cooked perfectly with butternut squash, luscious Parmesan risotto and a sprinkling of pancetta. Pair it with something from the Italian wine list, or a cocktail that’s crafted as creatively as it’s named.
There are some growing pains as well that North Italia will inevitably get through. Not all the inventive ingredient compilations came together, namely in a short rib radiatori with an overpowering touch of horseradish [that short rib was excellent though!], and a branzino that was cooked well but lacked a necessary touch of garlic, richness or really anything else to give it flavor. Then there’s the matter of service, where staff are incredibly friendly and well-intentioned, but may all the same make you wait for a full hour between courses.
You’ll finish on a good note though. That salted caramel budino and hazelnut torta are primed for indulgence.
North Italia’s Santa Monica location is located at 1442 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Open 11a – 9p Sun – Thu, 11a – 10p Fri/Sat. Avg. out-the-door cost for split appetizer, entrée, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$105/person. For more information call (310) 382 – 2460 or visit NorthItaliaRestaurant.com.
sixth + mill [yes, all lower case] is the latest addition to Factory Place Hospitality Group’s growing restaurant collection. Seeking to be the ‘casual’ alternative to neighboring sister eateries Factory Kitchen and BRERA Ristorante, sixth + mill unquestionably upholds group’s home-cooked Italian nature with a ‘very LA’ vibe. And of course, with a location on 6th Street, the place continues the group’s minimalist naming scheme.
Culinary Director Angelo Auriana, whose pastas are some of the best in the city, continues to showcase his prowess with a limited but well-executed menu. Red and white pizzas, a sprinkling of entrees, salads, small plates and—of course—pastas stay true to Italian nature with simple, rich, high-quality ingredients. Case in point with the coppia, a heavenly compilation of buttery ricotta, bold fennel sausage and arugula that melds together amidst a beautiful crown [read: perfectly-baked crust]. Or the fettuccine al funghi, where that homemade pasta with simply perfect texture meets fresh mushrooms and a light cream sauce for lavish decadence.
Portions aren’t overwhelming like you’d find in a true Italian trattoria, but enough to get by. All the better to have room for some tiramisu or indulgent zeppoline. And of course you can pair anything with a selection from the Italian wine list, as well as a handful of beers and a few craft cocktails.
sixth + mill’s claim as a casual spot may seem a bit far-fetched to some, with a price tag that’s digestible but by no means economical. A loud, but not unbearable, dining room brings out the casual element with large groups of 20, 30 and 40-somethings on a festive night out. And veterans of Factory Kitchen and BRERA Ristorante may either rejoice in ironic nostalgia or reactivate some PTSD with the thought of going back to this particular pocket of the industrial district, where glass shards line the streets from the seemingly endless auto break-ins. Probably a good idea to spring for the valet this time around.
sixth + mill pizzeria and bar is located at 1335 E. 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90021 . Open 11a – 11p Sun – Thu, 11a – midnight Fri/Sat. Out-the-door price for appetizer, entrée, split dessert and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$81/person. For more information call (213) 629 – 3000 or visit sixthandmill.com.
Old Vine Kitchen and Bar, an Orange County favorite that began as [the award-winning] Old Vine Café in 2007, has recently reopened with a fresh look. Located in The CAMP in Costa Mesa, right next to its original location, this Italian destination holds an elevated but homey feel, where fine dining doesn’t have to sway guests from being themselves.
The redesigned restaurant features a long bar and adjacent lounge space, with an intimate dining room and heated patio. The open-space concept is tastefully sectioned using custom metalwork from sculptor Mark Gerardi. The walls are lined with paintings by artist Paul Cole, who also hand-painted the restaurant’s menu canvases.
Chef-Owner Mark McDonald has curated breakfast, lunch, dinner and happy hour menus that integrate Italian favorites, including daily hand-made pastas, with a touch of Latin and Asian influence in various places. Partner Sommelier-Owner Kate Perry completes the experience with an intriguing wine selection as well as a full cocktail program to go with that new bar. The duo comes together with four tasting menus with wine pairings, including dedicated vegetarian and vegan menus.
While the look may be new, Old Vine Kitchen and Bar picks up right where the café left off in terms of community engagement. McDonald and Perry continue to partner with local farmers, participate in nearby food and wine events, and lead twice-annual trips through Italy, known as the Splendors of Italy tours.
Old Vine Café is located at 2937 Bristol St. Suite A-103, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 9a – 3p. Open Tue – Sat for dinner from 5p – close. Bar open 9a – midnight Sun – Wed, 9a – 1a Thu – Sat. For more information, call (714) 545-1411 or visit OldVineKitchenBar.com
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.