Tribeca restauranteur rediscovers his Italian roots
By Frank Angelino
John Villa has gone back to his roots. Hes transformed his celebrated Tribeca Portuguese restaurant, Pico, into Dominic, a restaurant serving big city Italian food, as his grandfather put it.
Billed as Dominic restaurant/social club, no membership required, good food, good drinks, good people, it focuses on Italian food in a convivial setting.
The restaurant space that was Pico, furnished by Villa and his wife, has been slightly altered, all to the better. (Villas wife, Regina Graves, is an accomplished designer with several Woody Allen movies to her credit, as evidenced by a prop from one of the movies.) There is a square bar in front that integrates well with the dining room. The high ceilings typical of Tribeca, rustic red brick walls and spacious open kitchen make Dominic a handsome and very comfortable place to have a good meal.
After Pico attained a good reputation, Villa became a partner with Ken Aretsky in midtowns Patroon (160 East 46th St.)
Patroon has mostly a business clientele and they like their food predictable, Villa says. It reasons then that Villa looks forward to Dominics in Tribeca where he can cook a very personalized menu free from the more narrow restrictions that a successful midtown business demands.
I named the restaurant in memory of my grandfather, said Villa. Images of his Italian family life adorn the walls. Real life support comes from his mother and father, who are frequently helping out. Also from his sister Gerry and his attorney, Edward Abbot, who is also a partner in the business. The two are frequently present at the 60-seat eatery.
Just as Pico was Villas creative take on Portuguese fare, Dominic is his innovative way with Italian cooking, or as his grandfather Dominic used to call it, big city Italian: classics updated with a sophisticated edge.
At Pico there are two dishes that received much critical and popular praise, so much that they have made their way on to Dominics menu: the cockles or clams with chorizo, and the roast suckling pig. Both are Villas signature dishes and to have dropped them would have led to much disappointment. These are memorable dishes and Villa has kept them on Dominics menu.
The clams with chorizo have been transformed and adapted to Dominics Italian menu by being recast as Linguine with clams and house cured pancetta. Happily, the combination of juicy clams and spicy pork is as delicious as it was at Pico, but with a different accent.
The roast suckling pig is prepared with honey and Tuscan seasonings and is served with sautéed greens.
While Villa is equally adept at giving the dish an Italian accent, as he did a Portuguese one, its superior taste shows that it is one of those generic dishes that spans ethnicity.
Villa excels with appetizers. Quail, often a disappointment, here is expertly grilled and served with a superb spinach and eggplant confit and preserved citrus. Yellow fin tuna, sliced thin, is served with fennel, apple and citrus vinaigrette. The dish works well as a refreshing preface to Villas hearty pastas and entrees. Lardo, the pork fat popular in northern Italy, is served in thin slices melted on Tuscan toast.
Strozzapretti pasta is such a hearty dish, rich but not overwhelmingly, as might be expected since its served with San Daniele prosciutto, truffle butter and parmesan cream. Wild striped bass is pan roasted and served with braised escarole, oven dried tomatoes and green olives. Cioppino, the San Franciscan Italian fishermans fish stew, is offered, along with such side dishes as creamy polenta and gorgonzola.
Desserts range from such elevated fare as a bittersweet hazelnut torte with sabayon sauce, to a just right brown bag full of sugar dusted zeppole, or fried dough, served steaming hot.
Dominic has a very good wine list with an emphasis on regional Italian. Imaginative drinks include the Dominic Collins (fresh rosemary with lemon in vodka,) and the Italian job (bourbon, limoncello and kiwi.)