Have you ever tasted the fried potatoes at Little Dom’s? Because they’re really pretty extraordinary: little new potatoes boiled to a point just short of squishiness, then whacked with a heavy object, popped into the deep fryer until they resemble frizzled river rocks, and tossed imperfectly with lemon and plenty of minced raw garlic — the potatoes become soft and crunchy, salty and sweet, mined with almost random depth charges of garlic pungency and puckering sourness, which make your soft palate bounce like the ball in a game of pachinko. And that’s not even considering the real likelihood that the first potato or two will scorch the roof of your mouth.
Al Gore, Michael Kinsley once wrote, is an old person’s idea of a young person. Little Dom’s is a young person’s idea of an old person’s restaurant, all dark wood and dim lights, snappy waitresses and strong cocktails, deep booths and a wall lined with faded 8×10’s of Hollywood royalty, circa 1942. The mostly Italian wine list isn’t bad, but everybody seems to be drinking martinis or ginger-infused highballs; you can get modish salads of beets and burrata or blood oranges with fennel and goat cheese, but the action seems to be with the fried shrimp and an Italian wedding soup that could have come from the first scene of The Godfather. There are wood-roasted pork cheeks on the menu, but they’re just that: wood-roasted pork cheeks, like a Sunday dinner entrée but, you know, from the face. The pizza is oblong and as thin as communion wafers, less a thing in itself than a vehicle for fresh mozzarella and house-cured anchovies, fried eggs or house-made fennel sausage. If you want an authentic trifolati or roast faraona in liver sauce, there are Italian restaurants that can do that for you.
At Little Dom’s, the specialties include thick steaks, spaghetti and meatballs, and fried arancini sturdy enough to survive a round or two of bocce ball. It’s the kind of battered, intimate restaurant that seems like a relic from the midcentury, when this stretch of Los Feliz was still more or less an Italian area, but it was created out of whole cloth by the Dominick’s team of Warner Ebbink and chef Brandon Boudet, carved out of the corner space once occupied by the unlamented belle époque, which means that the meatball sub is on the menu because they like it, not because of any preferences of guys who have been coming here since 1953.
The easy comparison may be to neighborhood Italian restaurants in New York or South Philly, but Little Dom’s is closer to the neighborhood joints in New Orleans, grown-up places where the cocktails are at least as important as the wine, short, idiosyncratic menus may be Italian, French or even Vietnamese, but the local preferences for anise, artichokes and fried seafood poke out where you least expect them. At these restaurants, you always know when crawfish is in season; and the chef is no better able to control the odd generous gesture than he is to control his shoe size. Boudet is from New Orleans, and despite the considerable virtues of Dominick’s, I suspect that Little Dom’s is the restaurant he has always dreamed of opening.
Armed with the knowledge that Little Dom’s is less Italian than Italian-Creole, you find that certain of its eccentricities start to make sense: the oysters on the half shell; the crawfish garnishing the grilled Mediterranean orata; or the excellent Sazeracs at the bar. (A Ramos fizz, on the other hand, was sabotaged by a lethal dose of orange flower water.) An appetizer of fried shrimp and artichoke wedges, served with a kind of salsa verde of mint with lots of capers, is the kind of dish I can imagine Tom Fitzmorris, the Rush Limbaugh of New Orleans food, going on about for a half-hour on his radio show. If you are offered an oyster po’ boy as a daily special, don’t hesitate: Boudet’s interpretation — which involves fried, freshly shucked mollusks piled onto crunchy toasted focaccia with tomatoes, a crumpled sheet of fried speck, and a peppery rémoulade — is unconventional but is probably the best in Los Angeles at the moment.
Spaghetti and meatballs may be a dish unknown in Italy, but Boudet’s thick tomato sauce comes pretty close to the sauce created by a New Orleans–style daube, and the meatballs are huge, fluffy things, well-garlicked, flavored with great lashings of fennel. I don’t quite agree with the concept of a soupy, tomatoey risotto jambalaya, but the shellfish is fresh, the kitchen uses nicely spicy andouille sausage, and while it’s not the best jambalaya you’ll ever taste, the substitution of Italian Arborio rice for the requisite Louisiana long grain surely does the dish no harm.
If you visit often enough, you begin not just to tolerate the kitchen’s eccentricities but to prize them — every time I go to the restaurant I run into something a regular would have known, like the fact that the brunch frittatas are tough and overdone but the poached eggs with fennel-pollen Hollandaise are luscious, or that you are always better off getting the pappardelle with sausage and still more fennel pollen than something fancier, like pan-fried gnocchi with an over-reduced mushroom cream. And there’s bread pudding for dessert.
The restaurant recently opened a deli annex to sell sandwiches and such. Dom’s and subs: a natural combination.
Little Dom’s: Open daily, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun.-Thurs., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, Discover, DC, MC, V. Dinner appetizers $8-$15; main courses $15-$41; desserts $8. Recommended dishes: oyster po’ boy; fried shrimp and artichokes; fried potatoes; pappardelle with sausage, English peas and ricotta; spaghetti and meatballs
2128 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 661-0055.