A decade back, Chef John Besh partnered with Chef Alon Shaya to create Domenica Restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel, inspired by the regional cooking of Italy. (Both chefs are no longer affiliated with the restaurant). Although New Orleans has its share of Italian restaurants, it’s fair to say most of them serve Italian-American cuisine, much of it Sicilian-inspired. From the onset, Domenica took a different approach, and has been a smashing success ever since.
A grand-scale enterprise, Domenica set out to offer a completely new template, rethinking and redefining the contemporary Italian restaurant in New Orleans, starting with a robust in-house charcuterie selection, complemented by artisanal imported cheese and bread made in house, served with various condiments. Chef Shaya went to Italy to perfect his pizza-making skills, and so pizza became an integral part of the menu at Domenica. Partnerships were made with local producers such as Covey Rise (in Husser, LA) and Compostella Farm (Picayune, MS); those relationships blossomed and created a pathway for Domenica to offer seasonal local produce, and specialties like Mangalitsa pork, that’s been called the Kobe beef of the pig world. Various kinds of pasta are also made in-house, rounding out an impressive array of menu items.
The sleek design of Domenica, with its sky-high ceilings, modern art and a sea of glass facing Carondelet Street, sets a dramatic stage. The brightness as one enters the room is offset by the dark wood of the dining room. Just on the left side of the dining room behind a marble top counter is an espresso machine and a state-of-the-art slicer, used to produce thin, heavenly slices of Prosciutto di Parma for the salumi boards. The salumi and formaggi constitute the first of seven sections of the menu that also contain outstanding mortadella, various sliced meats, and the most amazing chicken liver paté I’ve ever had (served with cheese selections with amazing torta fritta puffed bread made with lard). Various condiments include mostarda, candied pecans, dried fruit, varied pickled vegetables, and olives. The high level of attention to detail, balancing textures with impeccably fresh flavors is prominent throughout the menu and so typical of authentic fine Italian cuisine.
From the antipasti section, the ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms served with a spring onion pesto were incredibly vibrant and simply divine. The signature dish of roasted cauliflower with sea salt and whipped feta was a monument to simplicity. Always a show-stopper, Roman-style artichokes with green garlic aioli were also a treat. The fried Tuscan kale with pine nuts and tomatoes didn’t last long enough on the table to contemplate. Domenica also knows when to leave well enough alone, as demonstrated with a humble dish of bruschetta with fava beans and burrata cheese—rustic and satisfying. Similarly, the meatballs set over a bed of creamy polenta is a perfectly satisfying combination. The creamy asparagus soup with Parmesan and croutons also hit the spot.
Ten different pizzas are offered at Domenica, and they are simply outstanding. The thin-crusted pizzas spend about two minutes in the rotating wood-fired pizza oven and feature combinations ranging from fresh clams with Parmesan, to asparagus with Meyer lemons, ricotta and basil, to an array of meat and cheese toppings. “Tutto Carne” showcases fennel sausage, salami, and bacon, while the “Quattro Formaggi” is a classic presentation of assorted gooey cheeses. The popularity of Domenica’s pizza inspired an offshoot enterprise, Pizza Domenica, which opened a few years ago.
From the primi section, the Gulf shrimp risotto with asparagus was unbelievably delicious, as was the stracci with braised lamb, broccoli rabe, and ricotta salata. The homemade tagliatelle with braised rabbit and porcini mushrooms speaks to my soul. On the eclectic side, the squid ink tagliolini with blue crab is one of the more ambitious and adventurous dishes that scream for a glass of light, Italian white wine.
The secondi section features a double-cut pork chop with caramelized bok choy and Lambrusco wine jus, that adds just the right amount of contrast to the savory, salty flavors. The Wagyu hanger steak is a hedonistic flavor bomb offset by lima beans and radicchio, sweetened with the twang of balsamic vinegar.
Desserts at Domenica get equal billing, and they are some of the best in town. We were totally knocked out by the restaurant’s incredible tiramisu presentation, and the gianduja (the original basis for what’s marketed commercially as Nutella) pudding with coconut cream and chocolate bark was every bit as ridiculously delicious as it sounds. The affogato vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso and biscotti will set you right, day or night.
The wine list at Domenica is well-crafted and focuses on both classic and eclectic Italian wines that match the cuisine. Over the years, I have enjoyed everything from bright, fruity wines such as Dolcetto, Barbera, and sparkling Lambrusco, to robust reds from Sicily.
Domenica remains one of the very top restaurants in New Orleans, and continues to set the highest standard for Italian-inspired cuisine.
Domenica Restaurant, 123 Baronne St., New Orleans, LA 70112. (504) 648-6020. Open Daily: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Brunch on Saturday and Sunday); Happy Hour Daily: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.