Italian Enticements: Contemporary trattoria serves unpretentious old world cuisine

Before the snazzy new Domenica restaurant opened on Baronne Street in September, there were 2,500 pounds of salami slowly curing, in addition to prosciuttos and hams that had been aging for close to a year at the Besh Restaurant Group’s shared smokehouse at La Provence in Lacombe.

Chef-partner Alon Shaya had packed them away before his initial “study abroad” adventures through Milan, Tuscany, Venice, and Chianti, where he absorbed the Italian culture by living it, and working with the artisans who carry out an ancient heritage of traditional food preparation. “These were not Michelin starred restaurants,” explains Chef Shaya, “but what I came to understand was authentic Italian culture.” Among the many people he apprenticed under in the family-run operations he encountered was an 83-year-old grandmother who taught the chef about making everything from pasta to walnut liqueur. “There are no hierarchies in these kitchens,” he exclaims.

The family-oriented new restaurant in the Roosevelt hotel is the fulfillment of Chef Shaya’s long-held dream. Born in Isreal, he has always been drawn to the food from “just across the Mediterranean from my homeland” and now, as an accomplished chef, this love has evolved into a total immersion in Italian traditions and food culture. The staff of Domenica was also sent to Italy to learn about the culture and cuisine.

Domenica is one of the latest ventures by Louisiana Chef John Besh, who, like Emeril Lagasse, has a growing restaurant empire. Unlike Emeril, all six of his restaurants are located in Louisiana (Emeril, originally from Massachusetts, has 11 restaurants from coast to coast, including the newest one that recently opened at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania). After opening Domenica, the nationally acclaimed Chef Besh launched the American Sector, which opens November 6 on the campus of the National World War II Museum (a proud veteran and a former Marine, Besh led a squad in the infantry that liberated the Kuwait International Airport).

Domenica’s menu echoes the unpretentious and simple cuisine Chef Shaya encountered in his European travels. The regional Italian wine selection features bottles that are modestly priced under $40. Pizza cooked to blistering perfection comes from a wood-burning oven (try the amazing crabmeat, asparagus, and truffle pizza). Lovingly cured meats including prosciutto and a variety of custom salamis complement the hand-crafted Italian-style cheeses offered as appetizers along with marinated olives and roasted vegetables.

Anitipasti (in small or large plates) include wood-grilled shrimp, fried squash blossoms, Sicilian meatballs, and chilled heirloom tomato soup that refreshes the senses. An assortment of fresh pastas (small and large plates) includes a delectable tagliatelle rabbit ragu, lasagna Bolognese, spaghetti with Parmesan, anolini with chanterelles, and linguini accented by shrimp flecked with chilies and fresh mint. They are creative, yet traditional in their preparation.

From the whole pompano with fennel to guinea hen, Louisiana grass-fed veal, and slow-roasted goat with chanterelles, the main course offerings are complemented by an assortment of fresh vegetables including delicious rosemary roasted potatoes, the ultimate comfort food. In the European tradition, sample the variety of fresh cheeses served with fruit for dessert, or try the buttery farmer’s market peach and blueberry crostata.

The contemporary trattoria-style restaurant with a multi-level space showcases Italian furnishings and fixtures. Ivory leather benches contrast the dark brown walls which are softly lit by contemporary chandeliers featuring delicate Swarovski pendants. Rustic cypress tables are handmade from barge wood from the Mississippi River. Bronze metal curtains are used to divide the restaurant into semi-private spaces. On the upper level, the sleek contemporary bar seats 15. For wine tips, ask sommelier Michelle Gueydan to guide you through the list. Custom beers are available as well.


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