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The sauces could have been warmer, but the meatballs were good.EXPAND
The sauces could have been warmer, but the meatballs were good.
Leigh Chavez Bush

North Italia: How Does a Chain Restaurant's Happy Hour Hold Up?

I wasn’t planning on happy hour-ing at North Italia in Cherry Creek this week — or maybe ever. After all, the place has dozens of locations across eleven states, so why bother? But is it not worth keeping the behemoths of the industry and all their R&D honest? After all, how would those avocado spring rolls have reached the pinnacle of bizarre fusion food success without a little critique? Also, it was 5:50 p.m., and my happy-hour window was rapidly diminishing.

North’s brick-walled interior and trendy lighting — think long amber filaments surrounded by blown-glass orbs — make for a pleasant atmosphere. I remember thinking it was very fancy when the restaurant first showed up in the wealthy Cherry Creek shopping district, but when I entered recently, I found it has that same industrial-chic feel many of us Coloradans have grown accustomed to. Stylishly dressed servers directed us to the bar area, where happy hour is confined, and we were seated at the end of an eight-person high-top, a table I would consider a table d'hote, or shared chef’s table — the kind that always seems to make the next arrivals uneasy when they are forced to sit at the other end (with a three-seat buffer).

North's pizza bianca and zucca chips.EXPAND
North's pizza bianca and zucca chips.
Leigh Chavez Bush

Our objectively handsome server arrived to take our order quickly, critical to a last-minute happy hour, so we promptly ordered drinks and everything on the menu but the chef’s meat and cheese board. We asked what was pouring for the happy-hour red, and our server simply answered “merlot.” We were hoping for more detail than this stunted answer, especially at a restaurant touting “craveworthy Italian food,” but it turned that out the resulting wine — passable, soft and lacking acidity — really needed no additional description. I appreciated that our server mentioned that our order would come out as each dish became ready (rather than all at once).

First to the table, North’s meatball skillet ($9). Please forgive me when I say that the balls were plenty hot, but the creamy polenta and marinara less so. Still, my partner nearly fought me for the third dense and juicy meatball, scooping up every last dollop of cheesiness while commending the cast-iron skillet trend. The zucca chips ($4), North’s signature snack since day one, were as thin and lightly fried as I recall them being, though perhaps we were given the dregs of the batch, as most of them were too small and flimsy to pick up.

Don't brush off the bruschetta at North Italia.EXPAND
Don't brush off the bruschetta at North Italia.
Leigh Chavez Bush

Although handsome server was never to be seen again, various attentive folks regularly checked in, delivering our bianca pizza ($10) and bruschetta ($6) in succession. The pizza was indeed white but for the glistening arugula on top. I craved a weighty glass jar of red pepper flakes to liven it up. But when the bruschetta arrived, it had the look of a pièce de résistance: A perfect char scarred the fluffy-crusty bread cradling a gooey crescenza cheese. Grilled asparagus lounged across the long slice, four spears wide, basking under their prosciutto drapery. Unlike many a woody asparagus spear, these subdivided easily with each toothsome bite. Meanwhile, the prosciutto, salty, prolific and sprinkled with grana padano, had us tearing the last morsel into precisely equal shreds. Seriously, this shit was good, really good. So good that it did not need the overwhelming odor of truffle oil.

I can’t say North stands out among Denver’s Italian eatery happy hours (Osteria Marco, do you still, I wonder?), but with its cozy atmosphere, attentive service and consistent kitchen, this is an easy default if you’re wandering around the Cherry Creek ’hood in need of a nosh. As long as you come prepared to pay neighborhood inflation prices ($9 for three meatballs is actually a $5 discount from $14 during regular service, for example) and full price if you’re a cocktail lover, you can leave this happy hour fully sated for the evening. And I'd never thought I'd say this, but don't you dare skip the bruschetta.

North Italia is located at 190 Clayton Lane and offers happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and all day Sunday, including half-priced bottles of wine on Sundays. Call 720-941-7700 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.

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