In New Orleans, the heart of a neighborhood often is defined by its corner restaurant or bar, a warm and inviting space where patrons are almost certain to know who will be dining at what time and table - a place so welcoming and with characters so congenial that diners feel they could slide in and join them at that table.
Take that neighborhood spot, increase the size, drop it into a world-renowned Waldorf Astoria hotel in downtown New Orleans, and you've got Domenica, a new look and idea for the Besh Restaurant Group. With Alon Shaya, former chef de cuisine at Besh Steak in New Orleans, as executive chef and partner with John Besh, Domenica will open in June 2009, serving an extensive menu of rustic Italian fare in a lively, open dining room seating about 120 at private or long communal tables.
Shaya is smitten to the point of obsession with the unpretentious country fare he encountered during his year-long sabbatical in Italy, and the dishes and setting of Domenica are smartly fitted to suit his passion.
"This is exactly the sort of food everyone likes to eat - simple, approachable and honest," Shaya says, "prepared with skill and infinite care."
The name "Domenica" means "Sunday" in Italian, and no matter what day of the week it is visitors will experience that warm and inviting Sunday-supper feeling.
Just as in the Besh Restaurant Group's other restaurants - August, Besh Steak, Lüke and La Provence - the culinary emphasis will be on local, artisan-crafted products. At Domenica, the focus will be on traditional and regional Italian foods using many local Louisiana ingredients, as well as imported Italian artisan oils, cheese, flours and vinegars.
Occupying a spot in The Roosevelt New Orleans, the historic downtown hotel currently undergoing a $145-million historic restoration, Domenica becomes part of a rich example of New Orleans culture.
"By adding Domenica, we feel The Roosevelt New Orleans will reclaim its position as a premier dining location in a city that appreciates and expects fine dining," says hotel general manager Tod Chambers.
At the corner of business-oriented Canal and Baronne streets, it will be perfectly situated to bring together neighbors with diverse interests but a shared taste for great food and camaraderie.
Entering Domenica, guests first encounter the raised bar area seating about 20. The bar itself is anchored by antique glass meat cases displaying Shaya's estate-raised pork delicacies. To reach the private dining room, guests will be ushered right through the bustling kitchen for a fleeting, intimate look at the inner workings of an authentic Italian kitchen.
The main dining room, however, will be a cavernous, open space, packed with vintage character and dark masculine wood - for example, that of the sturdy, handmade tables weathered by the waters of the nearby Gulf of Mexico and salvaged from a barge submerged for more than 200 years. The long communal refectory tables will seat 10 to 12, with smaller parties at surrounding tables. The floors will be rustic heart pine, and the wooden tables will be topped not with tablecloths but with hearty placemats printed with the menu.
Shaya spent time northeast of Milan, traveling as much as he could to places like Venice, Tuscany and Trentino Alto Adige, tasting, watching and learning. He favored the small Italian towns and countryside establishments where proud artisans have created their products and, in turn, dishes under the same azure skies in the shade of the same ancient cedars using the same ingredients, techniques and equipment handed down through the generations.
"These were not Michelin-starred restaurants," Shaya explains, "but what I came to understand was authentic Italian culture."
Working in these tiny, family-run operations, Shaya has been privy to authentic, long-established recipes and techniques. Performing all tasks as a full-time line cook, he has had the opportunity to perfect the methods for perfectly crusted pizza, exquisitely handmade pastas, pillowy gnocchi, fire-roasted vegetables and creamy risotto. Luckily for New Orleans, he has brought all of his knowledge, experience and enthusiasm back with him, distinguishing his craft with an unmatched devotion and raising the bar of excellence for the region's agricultural bounty.
The chef and his staff are not all that is awaiting Domenica's opening: there is also a small stockpile of 1,500 pounds of salumi slowly curing, and prosciuttos and hams that have been aging for close to 12 months at the Besh Restaurant Group's shared smoke house at La Provence in Lacombe, La. Shaya packed them away before his Italian adventure and is now refining his menu and preparing additional cured meats, hand-crafted Italian style cheeses, liqueurs and other time-intensive traditional Italian ingredients that cannot be hurried but which are integral to the authentic country Italian fare he learned "living over the store."
Bread service sets the tone of each meal, with a basket of assorted house-made grissini, aromatic with fine sea salt and other seasonings. The fresh flavors of simple salads, pastas, and roasted meats braised with natural juices and a wide variety of antipasti using the freshest Louisiana produce will drive the menu. Each item will reflect the pure and unpretentious cuisine Shaya encountered in his travels, basic preparations with sometimes just two to three ingredients per dish. Pizzas will bake to blistered perfection in an authentic wood-burning oven. A portion of the menu will be dedicated to large platters heaped with savory fare brought to the table for all to share amid an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, as food is typically presented on the day of rest among families in Italy.
"There's a strong sense of community in rural Italy, just as there is here in New Orleans," Shaya observes, "and this will be a place to rub elbows with neighbors - a loud, fun, boisterous and happy place."
With custom-made beers and a wine list focusing on various regions of Italy, the libations at Domenica are ideally suited to the menu and to discriminating palates. Most bottles will be priced modestly under $35, with a special list of Barolos and Barbarescos on reserve. It also will be hard to resist Shaya's own house-made nocino and limoncello, the latter of which started with Meyer lemons he recently picked in season in Louisiana's countryside, Plaquemines Parish.
Domenica will be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.