For obvious reasons, I normally confine my reviewing to local (or almost local) restaurants. But I claim three excellent justifications for making an exception in the current instance. First, though the restaurant in question is not in or even very near Baton Rouge, it is located in the Destin, Florida, area, a popular vacation spot for a good many Baton Rougeans; and, as the season for beach holidays gets underway, I assume that anyone interested enough in food to read this column agrees with me that discovering good restaurants is one of the most delightful aspects of out-of-town travel. Second, what I have to say here follows logically from what I said last month, in my review of Monjunis Highland, about Italian food (or Italian-American food—a distinction of which I was reminded with some emphasis by a friend in Rome who read the Monjunis piece). Finally, my third justification is simply my enthusiasm for Fat Clemenza’s Brick-Oven Pizzeria.
Last month I noted that really good Italian restaurants often tend to resemble the unpretentious family-owned places featured in mob movies; and Dom Damiano, the proprietor and self-styled “boss” of Fat Clemenza’s, is clearly quite conscious of the connection. It’s not only that he has named his restaurant after the Mafia capo in THE GODFATHER who, during one scene, teaches Michael Corleone how to cook: but further signifiers of what Roland Barthes might have called “the Mafia effect” abound as well, from the voicemail that claims to be recorded by Luca Brasi, to the restaurant’s slogan, “Food For the Whole Mob,” to the prominently displayed images from the GODFATHER trilogy, GOODFELLAS, THE SOPRANOS, and other works that have done so much to shape our cultural imagination of La Cosa Nostra. Described thus in cold print (or pixels), all this might, I suppose, sound a bit gimmicky. What enables Fat Clemenza’s to make the effect work is the genuinely friendly, neighborhood atmosphere of the place—where Dom himself occasionally visits the tables to say hello and make sure you’re enjoying yourself—and, above all, the extremely high quality of the food.
The pizza—baked at 900 degrees in an old-fashioned wood-fired oven—is superior by at least a whole order of magnitude to the usual American version of the dish, and is concocted in fairly classic ways. You will find no smoked salmon or canned pineapple sitting atop a pizza here. Instead, a limited number of well-chosen traditional ingredients—most prominently hot salami, prosciutto, onion, mushrooms, peppers, olives, oregano, basil, and, of course, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese—are combined in various different ways. Though I’ve not yet had the chance it try it myself, I’m especially looking forward, on a future visit, to ordering the white pizza that the menu lists as a house specialty; it dispenses with tomato sauce and adds ricotta cheese to the mozzarella, along with hot salami and (a bit surprisingly) artichoke.
Yet, despite its full name, Fat Clemenza’s is not solely or even, perhaps, primarily a pizza restaurant. The pasta dishes may be even better than the pizza. The spaghetti carbonara, for instance, is not only among the very best I’ve tasted anywhere but is somewhat lighter than one generally expects the dish to be. The secret, I think, is that, instead of being heavily laden with several different meats, as carbonara often is, it uses just enough pancetta to impart a wonderfully tangy flavor to what is otherwise a vegetarian dish dominated by a cheesy and creamy sauce. Lighter still is another of my favorites, the linguini with white clam sauce. This has a deliciously hot-and-spicy undertaste not quite typical of the dish—a reminder, perhaps, that Dom, whose grandparents, he says, were from New Orleans, has subtly incorporated some Cajun/Creole culinary elements into the traditional cuisine developed mainly in the big northern cities of the US by Sicilian and southern Italian immigrants.
To wash down your meal, Fat Clemenza’s offers an adequate, though not outstanding, wine list. But I generally found that, after a sunny day spent mainly on the beach and by the swimming pool, I was more in the mood for a large bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water—more hydrating than wine and just as Italian.
Fat Clemenza’s is located at 12273 US Highway 98 in Miramar Beach, Florida (just slightly east of Destin proper); phone: (850) 650-5980. Reservations are not required and are not always necessary for lunch. But they are definitely a good idea for dinner, when the place is likely to be crowded. The restaurant is not large, and, despite its unpretentious ethos and rather out-of-the-way location (just off the highway in an unimpressive-looking strip mall), word has clearly gotten around that Fat Clemenza’s serves some of the best food to be found along Florida’s Emerald Coast.