North Fattoria Italiana is the new restaurant from Fox Restaurant Concepts. If the 'North' part sounds familiar, that's because North had long been one of Tucson's most popular restaurants. Modern Italian in concept, North brought in the crowds and won more than its share of "Best of Tucson" titles over the years. The new North is a bit more rustic, from the décor to the food, but we found these changes to be good ones.
While the name doesn't fall trippingly across the tongue, for curb appeal there's no better example than North Fattoria Italiana. The updated interior design is sharp; all the elements come together nicely. The brick walls have been whitewashed, adding a warm touch. Bits of color—mainly red—are splashed about. The lighting is just right; you can read the menu but don't feel like you're in the glare of headlights.
The bar area encourages communal dining with several long, high tables. The patio, which wraps around the building, has a pretty, striped awning and fire pits so that no matter the weather eating al fresco is doable. The main dining area is filled with wooden tables and chairs placed just far enough apart for a sense of intimacy and romance. But it's the work station that dominates the space.
Located in the heart of the lofty room, it allows you to watch your food being prepared. On one end, a huge pasta machine cranks out all types of fresh pasta. On the other end is a meat slicer that is kept humming, slicing meats and cheeses to a near translucence with lightning speed. Pizzas are prepared there, too. Large loaves of ciabatta are stacked artfully alongside. Behind all of that is the open kitchen. Topped with a large red hood and lit just so, it makes you feel as though you are watching a very busy play in action.
The lunch and dinner menus overlap a bit with midday and bar menus that offer some items from each.
The salumi section (not available at lunch) is a small list of tempting, reasonably priced choices. But the best bet is to go with the 'Chef's board' ($16). Diners get two meats, two cheeses, the house-made mostarda, slices of ciabatta and, to quote the menu, "other good stuff." For us, the other good stuff included sweet yellow and red peppers, castelvetrano olives and spiced, roasted hazelnuts. The mostarda, which can best be described as a sweet and savory fruit relish, was the perfect foil to the salty meats (paper-thin sopressata and spicy salami). The cheeses—a hard provolone and a creamy crecenza with olive oil drizzled on top—were fantastic. The salty olives and the sweet peppers proved that pickling can go so many delicious ways.
Insalate can be found on both menus. We split the heirloom beet salad ($11). Arugula, cubes of golden beets, thinly sliced apple, ricotta salata and more of those wonderful hazelnuts were dressed in a barely-there lemon crème fraiche dressing.
We also enjoyed the crispy potato appetizer ($5). The potatoes had been randomly chopped, then fried to a deep golden brown. They were then dusted with pecorino cheese, and there was a light, lemony aioli for dipping. Fried potatoes are so familiar, yet North's version is unlike any other potato dish around.
The lunch menu lists several sandwiches and panini. We tried the roast pork loin ($10) and the salumeria panino ($10). The pork sandwich is served on a buttery roll, but my dining partner asked to have it on ciabatta. I think the sandwich suffered a bit with the change, but the meat was sweet and juicy. The panino, on the other had, was perhaps the best panino I've ever eaten. The meat—sopressata, salami and mortadella—and the provolone cheese had been sliced thin. Then the whole sandwich had been toasted to an ideal crustiness. A slathering of pesto and a smattering of chopped red peppers made for the perfect sandwich.
Dinner entrees include pastas and a nice mix of meats and seafood.
The pork chop ($16) was beautifully presented; first, a layer of creamy white polenta, then a mess of braised greens (we guessed chard) and then thick slices of grilled, boneless chop. The dish was finished off with a brush of agrodolce, a sweet/sour glaze. For my taste, the chop could have spent another minute or two on the grill but this was a great dish made with the simplest of ingredients.
Pasta is central here. All the pastas are 'fatta en casa' or made in house. The tagliatelle Bolognese ($16) was perfect. The sauce was rich, meaty and nicely seasoned, and the long ribbons of pasta were tender and tasty. I've learned to love Bolognese sauce over the years and have become quite fussy about what I like. North's version is right up there.
Oddly, there isn't a chocolate dessert on the menu. Yes, there is tiramisu ($6) but hazelnut is the main flavor there. That's not saying the other desserts were bad. The budino ($6) was all about caramel. A thick layer of lightly flavored butterscotch pudding was topped with the most mouthwateringly-good salted caramel sauce. As if that wasn't enough, it was finished off with a huge dollop of crème fraiche. The hot apple dessert ($6) was apple crisp for the 21st century. The apple slices were thick and plentiful and just slightly sweet. The topping was crumbly and crisp and studded with nuts. Hot out of the oven, it was topped with a corvine gelato that melted into the crispy sweetness.
We'd be amiss if we didn't mention the wine list. Wines are Italian in style if not all directly from Italy. All are available by the glass, the larger terzo or the bottle. Prices fit any budget. There is a full cocktail menu as well.
At both meals, the general consensus on the service was that it really worked. All the servers are young and dressed in various plaid shirts and jeans. They are pleasant and obviously well-trained.
It's a big gamble to switch out a popular restaurant for a new concept. But Fox Restaurant Concepts has done a fine job with North Fattoria Italiana.