123 Baronne Street
New Orleans, LA 70112
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
Locals can order their favorite Creole-Italian dishes at plenty of restaurants around New Orleans without so much as glancing at the menu. But Domenica is a different type of Italian restaurant. Opened by chef John Besh in 2009 and run by executive chef and partner Alon Shaya, this restaurant inside the revamped Roosevelt Hotel specializes in regional dishes from many different parts of Italy and has little in common with the Sicilian-oriented Creole-Italian style so popular around town. This means meals at Domenica can be adventurous outings, though at its heart the cooking should prove accessible and appealing for just about anyone. Cheese and meat plates and great pizza anchor the menu, for instance, while pasta dishes may have unfamiliar names but promise winning flavors.
There is a somewhat jarring change in ambiance from the Old World grandeur of the Roosevelt Hotel lobby to the stark modernity of Domenica. The walls of the large, busy dining room are painted jet black and hung with contemporary art, while designer light fixtures drop from the very high ceiling. But tables made from recycled cypress soften the mood a bit, and menus that double as placemats set a laidback tone right away.
Unless you travel to Italy a lot or read up on regional cuisine styles, you'll likely need a little guidance parsing the unfamiliar corners of this menu, and the staff here does a good job guiding newcomers around. They should be able to tell you about the different types of meats and cheese and advise on portion control when assembling a roster of small and large dishes for the table. Beware that if you eat here in the optimal style - by ordering several dishes to share - the small table sizes can become an issue and you and your servers will have to configure some Tetris-like arrangement of plates and glasses to fit it all.
Diners have a lot of options to build various types of meal experiences and even meal paces here. Most antipasti and pastas are served as both small or large portions, so these can be ordered as stand-alone main courses, as smaller appetizers or as shared dishes, a family-style approach I highly recommend when visiting Domenica. But the king of the courses here is the cheese and meat plate. Many of the different types of salami proffered here are made in house, and you can see them aging in a special case above the bar where a gleaming slicer waits to get to work. The antipasti list contains the other popular first courses. Meatballs embedded in polenta and covered with smooth tomato sauce is comfort food incarnate, while more exotic options include the octopus carpaccio, or very thinly-sliced tentacles tasting finely briny and brightened by citrus and crunchy fennel.
The pizza at Domenica presents a conundrum. It's excellent stuff, with delicately-charred, bubbly dough and uncommon toppings (like lamb meatballs, mint and ricotta) and it can easily be the main course. But taking that route would miss the pastas and "secondi," or larger-scale entrée dishes that also shine here. My advice: split a pizza as a first course, along with a meat plate if you have enough people in your group, then try the pastas. My favorites are hearty bowls like the tagliatelle with rabbit and the cavatelli with sausage, kale and white beans. The stracci, made with torn sheets of pasta, thick oxtail gravy and fried chicken livers is intense, and perhaps too much so, though you can play it safe with trofie pasta with pesto or spaghetti aglio e olio. I'm not a fan of the gnocchi here, which proved doughy and dull. The thin-sliced, breaded veal is similar to the many local paneed meat dishes, though it's done Milanese style with a bed of arugula and dashes of lemon. The whole grilled redfish is done in a similarly straightforward style.
The dessert list is deeper than the norm these days for mid-range restaurants, and it keeps the Italian theme going strong. The hazelnut and chocolate pudding is deep, rich and velvety and begs for a shot of espresso on the side. The "frittole di ciliegia" are close relatives to beignets, though made with cherries and ricotta in the dough. The panna cotta may seem plain by comparison, but it is a gorgeously smooth rendition that quivers just this side of liquid.
The wine list is extensive and, naturally, heavily weighted toward Italian bottles. The full bar will assemble good cocktails and stocks a long list of Italian spirits.
There is surprising value at Domenica. Certainly, once you start racking up the meat plates and bottles of wine the bill can grow pretty big. But with a little planning, a table can share an exciting roster of dishes, wash it all down and leave for less than $50 per person. Few of the small orders exceed $10, and they really aren't very small.
It's a tribute to Domenica that I always leave planning not just to return again soon, but also to return again soon with a bigger party. That's because the food here lends itself so well to sharing that I want always to bring along more friends and split more dishes. With the right number of people (let's say six) you get to share great meat plates, excellent pizza, uncommon pastas and an few entrees and enjoy a memorable meal of unfamiliar but utterly compelling dishes.