The same type of wood-burning oven produces the same char-pocked, bubble-crusted Neapolitan-style pizzas. The same unaccountably delicious, whole roasted cauliflower is a go-to appetizer. And the same chefs and partners — John Besh and Alon Shaya — are at the helm.
But Pizza Domenica is a very different restaurant from the one that spawned it. In fact, sometimes it can feel like several different restaurants, depending on how you choose to use it.
While the original downtown Domenica is an upscale Italian restaurant that gradually built a strong (at times frenetic) following for its pizza, the newer Pizza Domenica was designed to update the neighborhood pizza parlor template with the hooks of contemporary upscale/casual dining.
This explains why you line up and order at the counter, why you can drink your beer (or certain batched cocktails) by the pitcher and why no one seems to mind if a preschooler starts dancing on the puffy banquette bench while her parents pass the antipasti around. On weekends, and especially during happy hour (2 p.m.-5 p.m. daily for half-price pizzas and varying drink deals), big parties pack in around conjoined tables for what look like indoor pizza picnics.
But a different image materializes when you back away from the pizza a bit, especially if you sit at the broad, white marble bar, facing a dozen beer taps (including a few pouring examples from the rapidly-improving Italian craft beer niche).
Get the snapper crudo ($10) under alternating washes of oil and citrus, finished with crackling sea salt and petit mint leaves. Order the roasted octopus ($14), which arrives as big, meaty hunks of tentacle with oil-soaked potatoes all bubbling in an iron skillet. Ask yourself at what other pizzeria you’d expect to find velvety-smooth chicken liver pâté ($10) to spoon from a little jar over oiled bread or find ciabatta standing in as dessert ($8) under a cloak of darkly tart blueberry sauce and cream. At this point, it seems clear that Pizza Domenica is also an Italian tavern, with a drink selection as rich as any modern lounge and a menu that lends itself to tapas-style tastings as much as it does a pizza feast.
Along these lines, then, garlic knots ($8) are not the usual filler before the pizza arrives but a snack quite worth planning a visit around on their own. Simple and compulsively good, these loosely-tied bows pull apart in puffs of steam and the heady aroma of just-baked bread, ready to be dredged through a cheese dip that behaves like whipped cream. The reason? It is whipped cream, lushly imbued with garlic and aged provolone for a deep, savory flavor suspended within its vanishingly light texture. Watch the prep station by the pizza oven and every few minutes you’ll see a cook dispensing it from a metal canister like a soda jerk. It’s a compelling culinary special effect that doesn’t rely on any razzle-dazzle.
Still, pizzas sit on every table, and plenty more whirl past in slim boxes as takeout orders bound for home. The list, which is similar to what’s served at the downtown Domenica, veers from the traditional Margherita ($13) to prosciutto ($15), layered with very sharp, broad-leaf Italian arugula, to some distinctive house specialties.
The top of this list for me is the smoked pork ($15), with its aromatic, crisp edges nestled between sharp chiles and bright-tasting, oily salsa verde on a bed of mozzarella. The most unusual is the roasted carrot ($13), which mixes the golden sweetness of carrots with mascarpone as a sauce under a colorful tumble of yellow beets, chopped Brussels sprouts and goat cheese. It’s almost more salad than pizza. What they all share is the crust, that layered textural landscape of crisp bubbles and chewy edges and smoky char imparted by the oven’s very hot, dry fire.
New Orleans is much better versed in this style of Neapolitan pizza now than when Domenica first opened in 2009, and we’re better supplied with other specialists, like Ancora, the newer Dolce Vita Wood Fired Pizzeria and even the mobile St. Clair Pizza food truck. But in a town where we have rapidly accumulated a lot of quality pizzerias, this one still stands out for what else it brings to the table.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.