By Frank Sabatini Jr.
LGBT community member and former “Top Chef” contestant heads the kitchen
Not since the rise and fall of Prego more than a decade ago in the Hazard Center has Mission Valley seen a stylish, modern Italian restaurant emerge.
That newly built, cube-like structure you see in front of Bloomindale’s at the east end of Fashion Valley Mall is North Italia, a softly lit space with midcentury nuances geared for serving high volumes of artisan pizzas, homemade pastas and upscale entrees.
North Italia is the second venture by Fox Restaurant Concepts to descend on the shopping mall. It recently opened Blanco Tacos & Tequila near the second-level food court, where the only other option for scoring Italian food while shopping your brains out is at the fast-casual Sbarro. For many, that’s good enough reason to run downstairs to North Italia for a pricier meal.
Serving as executive chef is Rich Sweeney, known fondly in the LGBT community for the American comfort fare he dished up at R Gang Eatery in Hillcrest. He owned the restaurant from 2010 to 2015, and later headed the kitchen at Waypoint Public in North Park.
Sweeney also became known as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef” (season five), on which he came out to national audiences and his fellow competitors at a time when gay chefs typically stayed in the closet.
“It’s not the machismo boy’s club anymore. People in the industry are more culturally sensitive—and this company welcomes everybody,” Sweeney said of his new Phoenix-based employer that trained him at North Italia locations in Irvine and Las Vegas. (Nationwide, there are about a dozen in total.)
The menu, he added, is driven by the company’s chefs and other personnel. It is steeped in traditional Italian recipes, but with contemporary spins such as the subtly sweet scamorza cheese (instead of mozzarella) that oozes from the centers of arancini made with mushroom risotto (instead of plain risotto).
Served in a trio with comforting marinara sauce, the orbs look exactly like meatballs. But their crispy fried texture and light, earthy flavor prove otherwise.
In another starter are three halves of sizable, grilled artichokes. Common to immigrant-Italian households, the bar is raised here with adornments of sea salt, Grana Padano cheese and lemon aioli. The petals on these chokes, however, weren’t the meatiest. But their hearts were chunky and luscious.
With hubby in tow, the comped media/VIP supper was part of a two-day dress rehearsal leading up to the restaurant’s Nov. 7 opening. We were seated along windows looking into the impressive exhibition kitchen, where a composed Sweeney could be seen playing general to an army of sous chefs and cooks, inspecting every dish with careful scrutiny before they left the kitchen.
In the spacious dining room, distinguished by parlor lamps and a full cocktail bar, squadrons of wait staff tended to guests. Everyone was required to work on those days, and we detected no hiccups in the service operation while proceeding to two entrees.
A beautiful green pesto sauce cloaked bell-shaped gigli pasta and tender strips of chicken breast in a dish that was one teaspoon away from being too salty to eat. The main culprit was brined capers garnishing the ingredients. Sweeney assured afterward he would instruct his team to lighten the sodium in the pesto sauce, which sports a unique blend of spinach, basil, and Parmesan cream used for added silkiness.
In need of no tweaking, except in quantity, were three diver scallops served over Parmesan risotto, butternut squash and Brussels sprout leaves. The big, sweet mollusks were crowned elegantly with crispy shallots. But for a list price of $29, I would implore the company to add just one more scallop to the dish. Undoubtedly, the average diner will crave an extra ounce of the pearly flesh and will likely return for the meal again if they get it.
In view of meat-and-cheese boards, pizzas, filet of beef, pasta Bolognese and other luscious items flying out of the kitchen, we concluded dinner with a plate of bombolini.
Served four to an order, these super-airy Italian yeast donuts sat in a pond of lemon curd and vanilla mascarpone. It’s one of those confections—if eaten in private—that you could stuff into your mouth like some sugar-crazed kid devouring pillows of cotton candy.
But North Italia feels too sophisticated for that kind of behavior, at least in the warmed-up phase that we experienced it. Though with the invasion of holiday shoppers right around the corner, the reality that you’re eating and drinking in a mall restaurant might become more obvious than it normally will once the seasonal commotion subsides.
For Sweeney, who is accustomed to feeding modest neighborhood crowds — he’s primed and eager for the tsunamis of mass consumers wishing to celebrate their shopping victories over fine Italian-inspired cuisine.
“I was ready for a change and for something that was going to keep pushing me,” he said.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.