Is Charlotte in the middle of an Italian renaissance?
Renaissances are revered for how they push cultures forward, and what they create. But cities are creatures of balance. You very rarely gain something without losing something else. The phrase "out with the old, in with the new" all too often applies to dining. As we pack out the new spots, how many empty seats does that cause in old favorites? In the face of that question, a renaissance can feel more like a razing.
Enter North Italia, a monster of a restaurant that opened this November in the Railyard in Southend. Like Flower Child, North Italia is backed by Big Cheesecake, a far cry from the homey, family vibe your classic Italian restaurant might exude. The menu is designed in a boardroom rather than a kitchen, and the concepts are driven by market research, rather than family traditions.
It's a complicated issue, but here's what's simple: the food is really good.
North Italia is well above average in food quality and flavor, flirting dangerously close to outstanding. While it makes no attempt to be a fit for this neighborhood or this city in either design or price point, it's X factor of flavor-forward, well seasoned food will make it a date night staple for years to come.
I was shocked by how busy the restaurant was. Charlotte dining typically cools down at about 8:30 PM, as the Gen Xers and Boomers head back to Matthews to save on babysitter costs. I thought 9:40 PM would be a perfect time to get a table and have plenty of space to take photos.
Not so. The hostess estimated an hour wait time.
Every table was full. There wasn't even a spot at the bar for us to sit. Hype is a dangerous thing in Charlotte, but being within walking distance of so many apartments and so much nightlife, it's not unrealistic that North could maintain this pace.
The design is an uninspired mix of IKEA wood, industrial unfinishes, and a small amount of greenery. The quirky "number of times pasta was a good idea" wall flops in the Charlotte location due to being blocked by a pillar. I know their corporate overlords probably dictated it after the earned media reports from other locations, by no one is instagramming that pillar.
There are a few mirrors with brass shelving and plants, which are fun and make the space glimmer. The lighting fixtures range from circular chandelier style to comically oversized Edison bulbs. Tall windows give a view of the Uptown skyline providing the type of spatial context that makes a restaurant feel like part of a city. You can hear kitchen activity from your table, warming the aesthetic. And the large Southend mural resembling a stamp ironically calls back to a neighborhood aesthetic North Italia is a part of destroying.
This dining room attempts nothing beyond this mural to connect itself to the history and culture of Southend, or Charlotte. It would fit in better in Dallas than Charlotte. I'd compare it unfavorably to La Belle Helene, similar in its scale, but the latter adds window panes and sliding doors in multiple efforts to play nice in its southern downtown habitat.
What even is Southend anymore? A series of unconnected vignettes driven by outside CEOs whose market reports titled "Hot Zip Codes in the Southeast" drove their decision to expand here?
We ordered the red sangria. With tip, it was $34 dollars, but it didn't taste much different from a house sangria at a real Italian restaurant. I have no problem with paying $34 for a cocktail, but it's gotta taste like it's $34. This one did not.
We ordered the White Truffle Bread, Diver Scallops, and Bianca Pizza. It took about nine minutes for our food to start rolling out.
The truffle bread comes in a cast iron skillet which my dumb ass burned my thumb on. Despite this, it's served only slightly above room temperature. The crusts are a little too hard, but not a crispy hard. More like moist leather. The mix of cheeses, herbs, and butter makes up for the textural misses. I ate more than my half and wanted more.
The Diver Scallops are a standout flavor combo, and one of the most fascinating dishes you'll eat this year. Despite being slightly overcooked, the parmesan risotto blends with the butternut squash and pancetta to form a delightful flavor mix with a few sweets thrown in. The dish is better than the sum of its parts. The scallops alone underwhelm, but all the other ingredients rescue the dish from mediocrity.
The bianca pizza was cooked perfectly, but didn't nail its flavor mix. The crust was fantastically cooked, and I tried my best to tease out the smoke, arugula, or provolone, but all I could taste was ricotta and lemon. Like, a lot of lemon. I'd stop just an inch shy of saying too much lemon.
With the sangria, that brings our total order to $107. Good food costs money. I understand that. But is a plus-up Cheesecake Factory worth $107 for two people? This question is especially pressing in a city that continues to produce new restaurants, and close old ones.
The price point is difficult to justify. I don't think it's better than less expensive meals I've had. I don't think there's a best-in-class atmosphere. I don't think the corporately dictated paint-by-numbers supply chain process is delivering particular freshness.
So where's the money going? Probably to pay for that big ass piece of property in a hot neighborhood.
Renaissances do two things: they advance creation and they advance thought. The Italian renaissance of the 15th century didn't only lead to the printing press and the firearm, but it also spawned new growth in moral philosophy, rhetoric, and history.
These concepts, known collectively as humanism, were intended to help citizens better participate in civic life in a way that was virtuous and prudent. Simply, the renaissance not only sought to give us better objects, but it sought to teach the people using them to be better as well.
Charlotte's own renaissance is faced with this question.
Are we becoming better, or are we just becoming more expensive? Are we building culture, or are we just eating bomb ass scallops?
Either way, the scallops, indeed, are bomb.