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Domenica Spans the Italian culinary map

click to enlarge Chef Alon Shaya curates a menu of Italian regional dishes at - Domenica. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The Roosevelt Hotel will surely be busy this month as its "winter wonderland" lobby of holiday decor returns. Ever-nostalgic New Orleans readily swoons for such traditions, especially after nearly losing them. Other traditions are in play at John Besh's restaurant in the hotel and, though many of them are new for New Orleans, they have proved quite a draw themselves.

  Domenica offers regional dishes from many different parts of Italy. Alon Shaya, formerly of Besh Steak, is the chef and a partner in Domenica, where he presents the rustic cooking learned over his journeyman chef's career and which he studied during an eight-month tour of Italy in advance of this venture. The result is an adventurous but accessible mid-range restaurant with a lot to explore.

  The paneed veal is familiar to the local palate, but its presentation over arugula with lemons is classic Milanese. It's also emblematic of Domenica's strong suit: simple, fundamentally satisfying dishes that are easy to share. Domenica has no deconstructed or reimagined cuisine, but such preparations probably wouldn't hold up amid the orbit of bowls and platters people tend to pass around the tables here.

  It's hard to resist the boards of cured meats and cheeses, especially with the interesting arrays of nuts, olives and relishes garnishing the selections. Pizzas have char-marked, bubbly crusts and also make fine shared first courses. I like the pizza Enzo, with salty anchovies and ultra-thin mortadella, which is one of several ways in which the house salumi lard the menu.

  The menu doubles as your placemat, and its sections cover antipasti, pastas and entrees. Even dishes in the last section are distinctly shareable. The roasted whole fish is presented family-style, and its flesh is left largely to its own goodness with just a dose of bright salsa verde. The fish was pompano in all its assertive glory when I tried it, though Shaya is now cooking redfish.

  Small, rosy-rare meatballs embedded in polenta share the antipasti list with the seaside exotica of octopus carpaccio, with tentacle meat shaved as thin as any prosciutto and braced by citrus and crunchy fennel. Moving on to pasta, you can play it safe with pesto linguine or spaghetti aglio e olio, though I prefer the tagliatelle with rabbit and the trofie noodle twists with bits of crab, mint and bottarga, a cured fish roe that's as subtle as a blast of wasabi. More intense still is stracci, made with torn sheets of pasta, thick oxtail gravy and fried chicken livers.

  Though Domenica is part of the Roosevelt, the hotel's retro style ends abruptly at the restaurant's door. There are some rustic touches of decor in sync with the menu, but the overall ambience of echoing, angular surfaces, jet-black walls and futuristic light fixtures is more Barbarella than Mario Batali.

  Service was always responsive and efficient, though the menu has some rough spots. Many of the pasta dishes shared an overdose of salt. The gnocchi were doughy and chewy, and a thin gravy couldn't revive a dried, pot roast-style goat entree. But the prices and menu format help temper expectations and set a friendly, laidback mood. Most antipasto and pastas are served as both small or large portions, and few of the small orders exceed $10. Share some of these dishes around your table and you'll have plenty to chew over.

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