Dom Damiano is the Culinary ?Godfather?

Dom Damiano is the Culinary ‘Godfather’Fat Clemenza’s expands its family approach to Italian diningBy Thomas J. Monigan

Come over here, kid, learn something. You never know — you might have to cook for 20 guys someday,” Peter Clemenza intones to a young Michael Corleone in one of the few light-hearted scenes from the iconic film, “The Godfather.”

But cooking and doing it well is no joke to someone like Dominic Damiano, who can trace his family roots to Sicily and Calabria — the toe of Italy’s boot.

Five years ago, Damiano and three partners — Chris Damiano, Mimmo LaInnusa and Saverio Jacovelli — turned a failed Destin restaurant called O Solo Mio into Fat Clemenza’s, and the results have spoken for themselves. Once again in 2011, Fat Clemenza’s won EC Magazine’s Best Italian Restaurant and Best Pizza accolades.

The “godfather” of Emerald Coast Italian cuisine gives us even more to love. Dominic Damiano’s new restaurant, Clemenza’s at Uptown Station, will soon offer a large function space and demonstration kitchen. Photo by Scott Holstein

In April of 2011 Damiano branched out by opening Clemenza’s at Uptown Station in Fort Walton Beach. Both restaurants feature classic red-and-white checkered tablecloths and large black-and-white “family” portraits mounted on the walls. Some are actually Damiano’s relatives, while others are famous for their association with La Cosa Nostra.

But as any seasoned diner can relate, it’s not possible to eat atmosphere. And classic Italian cuisine is Clemenza’s savory trademark.

EC: How much did your family background influence what you are doing today?

DD: Both families were in the produce business and both families were phenomenal cooks and bakers — absolutely amazing. A lot of our events in our lives revolved around food, smells, tastes. There is a trigger mechanism to the comfortable things that go on.

EC: Tell us about your earliest experiences in the kitchen.

DD: I think I started making St. Joseph’s Day cookies when I was 10 years old. I had two sisters and we didn’t sleep in our beds at all that week, because they were covered with wax paper and about a million cookies … we fed an army on St. Joesph’s Day.

EC: How did Fat Clemenza’s get its name?

DD: We kind of did the restaurant like how we grew up — we patterned it after every big city, urban restaurant that we’ve ever been in. So we put 20 names in a hat. My name was, Leave the Gun, Take the Cannolis. My son said, “That was Fat Clemenza, Dad,” and I thought, “FatClemenza was pretty cool — he only killed one guy and he cooked all the time.”

EC: In addition to your regular menu, you are famous for your blackboard specials. How did that come about?

DD: It’s what we found growing up with neighborhood restaurants in Chicago, ’cause Gramma’s in the kitchen cooking something special. We use the blackboard for a couple of reasons. One is we get to play every day. Someone in the kitchen is making something that’s going on the board, whether it’s a soup or dessert or entrée. The other reason is that it fills the need to expand the horizons on the customers’ side. It gets them eating things that they might not have tried before.

EC: You’re adding a banquet facility in Fort Walton Beach, with a demonstration kitchen. Why?

DD: What I’ve seen here in the first six months is we have a lot of very big tables. It’s not uncommon to have a 50 top. So the theory is to do the multi-purpose room next door, set up with audio/visual and whatever capabilities are required for corporate events as well as rehearsal dinners and banquets.

Part of the demonstration kitchen comes from the cooking classes I’ve done over the years at Kitchenique in Destin. We can crank up a meal for our guests and hand them a few recipes, show them a few tricks to make it a dining experience. We have a lot of talented chefs at both restaurants at our disposal to showcase their skills.