We’ve been watching for months as construction progressed on North Italia, the Woodlands outpost of the popular Italian concept founded by the prolific Sam Fox. Now under Cheesecake Factory ownership, North Italia is the unusual restaurant that’s part of a big chain yet feels very local. Unusually, the local management team can customize the menu and the environment to the tastes of the local market.
The space is at the end of the Woodlands Waterway, on the south side of the Woodlands Mall, directly across from Cheesecake Factory and adjacent to Mozambik. The previous building was gutted and rebuilt from the studs, and the result is an open, airy restaurant with a gigantic open kitchen along one wall, and an inviting bar along the other. The bar also opens to the outside patio space located directly above the Waterway.
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They’ve built a lovely, comfortable room. So how’s the food? We sampled a variety of dishes on opening day, and here are our impressions:
From the Small Plates section, the Italian Meatballs are beef meatballs presented over a creamy polenta and dressed with the house rustic marinara and grana padano. The dish is hearty and tasty, but didn’t wow us; the meatball game is strong in the Woodlands.
Shifting over to the Pizza selections, we started with the Cacio E Pepe pizza. The name means “cheese and pepper”, and the dish is elegantly simple with pecorino cream, mozzarella, and cracked black pepper. This pizza is a riff on the classic pasta dish of the same name, and the quality ingredients and expert technique shone through; the crust was lightly crisp and flawless.
Next up was the Spicy Meatball Pizza. Chunks of meatball are accent with spicy provolone piccante, the house ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino romano, and a thin coating of red pizza sauce. The result is a gently spicy pizza that’s bursting with flavor, and it rides on the same gorgeous crust as the Cacio E Pepe.
From the Happy Hour menu we sampled the Chef’s Board, a nicely assembled charcuterie and cheese board, with veggies and a generous helping of marcona almonds. Notably the meats are freshly sliced before serving, the vintage slicer loaded with prosciutto visible through the huge windows into the kitchen.
Skating back to the dinner menu, we had to sample North Italia’s take on chicken parmigiana, anglicized on the menu to Chicken Parmesan. A beautifully breaded and perfectly cooked chicken breast is draped in crushed tomato, then crowned with a combination of aged provolone and mozzarella and baked. Served with housemade parmesan rigatoni, this is a classically executed version of the Italian-American favorite.
As impressed as we were with the handmade rigatoni, we took a deep dive into the Pasta section of the menu and zeroed in on the Butternut Squash Anolini. Beautiful handmade pillows of butternut squash pureé are combined with al dente broccolini, arugula, grana padano, espelete, and a very clever hazelnut crumble. We’re confirmed carnivores, but we were blown away by the complexity and allure of this vegetarian pasta.
After sampling so many items, we were approaching capacity… so of course we delved into the dessert list. We are nothing if not dedicated.
The addictive Hazelnut Torta is a chocolate lover’s delight. A petite tart is filled with Nutella cream, sprinkled with bits of hazelnut toffee, then crowned with a scoop of salted caramel gelato. Yes, it’s as decadent as it sounds, and it sounds seriously decadent.
A bit less filling but just as delicious is the Italian Butter Cake. The light, airy cake is topped with a dollop of blueberry preserve, schmeared with whipped lemon cremé fraiche, then dusted with a cinnamon crumble and basil. A deceptively minimal, elegant, and tasty finish to your dinner.
Devotees of Cafe Du Monde should jump directly to the Bombolini. These square Italian delights are a smaller, more flavorful Italian take on the Crescent City classic beignet. Deep fried and perched atop a swash of meyer lemon curd and one of vanilla mascarpone, they’re simple and addictive. A light dusting of powdered sugar completes this love letter to New Orleans by way of Tuscany.
We’d heard great buzz about North Italia from Inner Looper friends, and were happy to discover that even on opening day, the Woodlands outpost lives up to the hype. If you’re craving quality Italian food and are near the mall or the waterway, North Italia should be on your short list. You won’t be disappointed.
Skillfully executed Italian classics in a comfortably boisterous setting.
Italian | Woodlands Mall
Brunch, Catering, Full Bar, Good Desserts, Happy Hour, On the Radar, Private Room, and Scenic View
1201 Lake Woodlands Dr | The Woodlands 77380
281-292-6935 | Map | Website | Details
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