I’ve always been a little hesitant about visiting San Domenico. It advertises more than most restaurants. You can hardly see anything at Lincoln Center without running across the distinctive San Domenico logo in your program. Now, I’ve nothing against advertising, but I figured a place that needs to sell itself so aggressively must not have enough adoring regulars. And that’s a bad sign.
On OpenTable, you can book San Domenico any day of the week, at almost any time you want—especially after 8:00 p.m., when the pre-theater crowd has departed. Another bad sign.
But San Domenico gets respect in the local press (New York rates it a critic’s pick), and many a fine Italian chef has passed through its kitchen. So I figured it was finally time to give it a try.
San Domenico has been offering luxe Italian cuisine on Central Park South for almost twenty years. It earned an adoring three stars from Bryan Miller just six weeks after it opened in 1988, with a celebrity chef that had earned two Michelin stars in Italy. Two years later, that chef was gone, and Miller demoted it to two stars in 1991. Ruth Reichl, always generous with her ratings, bumped it back up to three stars in 1993.
Owner Tony May (center), daughter Marisa May (left),
and Chef Odette Fada (right)
Since 1996, Odette Fada has been in the kitchen. William Grimes demoted San Domenico back down to two stars in 2003, finding that Fada “continues to perform marvels,” but that “the dining room is working from a different script,” noting a tourist atmosphere, “aggressive salesmanship,” and servers who “begin calculating their tip almost as soon as they approach the table.”
Grimes also noted that sometimes “the B team was at work” in the kitchen, and we seem to have chosen such an evening to dine at San Domenico. But maybe something more fundamental is wrong here, because no restaurant charging as much as San Domenico should be as clueless as we found it.
We began with drinks at the bar, served up by an old-school Italian bartender who took a while to notice we were there. When our table was ready, the service team insisted that my girlfriend’s unfinished drink would follow, but it took more than five minutes to arrive.
On the way to our table, the host was suddenly stopped by a more senior colleague, who berated him in Italian—for what sin I couldn’t perceive. We were offered fresh cut vegetables and olive oil immediately, but the bread it was meant to go with (excellent, I should note) didn’t arrive till quite a while later.
The waiters who served us were Indian, and they had a huckstering quality about them that belonged on Restaurant Row in the theater district. Our main server kept bumping into things. Others would come along and ask the same question (more bread? tap or bottled water?) we’d already answered. Did we want wine by the bottle or by the glass? It’s a crucial question, as there are separate menus for each option. I asked for wine by the bottle, and they brought both menus anyway. Bargains on the massive wine list are few, but I did find a great nebbiolo for $75, though with no help offered from the staff.
The dinner menu comes, and it’s a confusing jumble, with a lot of dishes to consider, and two loose inserts with additional choices, some of which are duplicated. One of those inserts is a white truffle menu. The server brings two truffles by our table, so we can see what they look like. If you go that route, you choose your food at the usual (very high) prices, and truffles are “$9 per gram” on top of that, with five grams recommended.
Who among us knows what a gram of truffles looks like? In 1993, when truffles were only $5/gram, Florence Fabricant reported that they actually bring the scale to your table and weigh the truffle before and after. It sounds like a procedure more appropriate at a gas station.
The pasta menu warns that dishes may be split, at an extra charge of $2.50. It seems almost churlish, when most of the pastas are around $25.
Candlestick pasta in spicy sausage sauce (left); Suckling pig (right)
To start, I had the nightly pasta special, described as “artisanal candlestick shaped pasta with a reduced spicy sausage sauce and green peppers” ($23.50). I was struck by the laziness of the plating, which would be unappetizing even at a diner. The pasta was undercooked and tough. The spicy sausage sauce packed some nice heat, but I didn’t see any green peppers. And for the life of me, I couldn’t perceive a “candlestick” shape; it just looked like large penne.
My girlfriend was even more disgusted with a similar-looking pasta, likewise undercooked, that was supposed to include lobster, at a price of almost $30. There were just two dinky pieces of lobster in there, which hadn’t been detached from their shells.
We both ordered the suckling pig, an entrée that’s tough to screw up, but was somewhat dull in light of a price point north of $35, and again unimaginatively plated. (To be fair, I had already eaten a bit of it before I remembered to snap the photo above.)
After all that, we weren’t going to take any chances on desserts, which at around $14 apiece struck us as exorbitant, even by this restaurant’s standards. After our meal, the server dropped off a plate of petits-fours, which were probably the best thing we had.
The room seems a bit dated, but I suppose it could be charming if only the food and the service lived up to it. San Domenico is surely capable of doing better than this. Then again, maybe not. We certainly don’t plan on trying it again anytime soon. At $300 (including tax and tip), we have better ways of spending our money.
San Domenico (240 Central Park South between Seventh Avenue & Broadway, West Midtown)
Ambiance: the perfect setting for a good meal that never arrives