By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
If you're paying attention, chefs and even home cooks have a signature: flavors they favor, crustiness levels and "doneness," juxtapositions of texture, even colors. I've paid plenty of attention to Domenica Macchia over the years. And now I'm paying attention to what she's doing since taking over the menu at Datz Dough, the recently launched bakery project of Datz owners Suzanne and Roger Perry.
I was first smitten with Macchia's cooking at MJ's, and closely followed her moves to Diner 437, BellaBrava, Shackleton's Folly, Three Birds and Beak's, all in St. Petersburg. For different reasons, her cooking at all those subsequent restaurants failed to rise to the level of what she had done at MJ's.
But joining forces with the Perrys, who as first-time restaurant owners have proven themselves to be savvy masters of reinvention and trend-setting in our area, is a promising development. Suzanne especially seems to trust her gut; she had a good feeling about this itinerant chef despite a fair amount of drama and legal trouble (Macchia is legally precluded from working in St. Petersburg until next year). And while the Perrys didn't give her carte blanche with Dough's bistro menu (as opposed to the bakery goods, which are overseen by Kim Vickers), they've let her get up to her old tricks.
And that's where the signature comes in. She makes duck fat fries ($8) that even the rabid carb-denouncer couldn't resist: big planks that are crunchy deep brown on the outside, creamy and sweet interior, served generously salted and piping hot with a mellow roasted garlic aioli. And everywhere she's worked there has been this cream sauce, really a classic béchamel. Sometimes it has been spiked with gorgonzola, but at Dough it gets a little chile heat and grains of nutmeg, then is folded into penne for a lush fondue-like spin on mac and cheese with a crunchy panko top ($6).
She likes foie gras but realizes a little goes a long way, at Dough choosing to showcase two disks of velvety seared foie gras on tiny toasted and buttered brioche buns for a spin on sliders ($12). (It's a small dish, best as an app, but in fact many of Dough's dishes are small and easily shared as nibbles.) But if there's one dish that is Macchia all over (her friends call her Donnie), it's the "swine and the sea" ($16), which is pan-seared scallops paired with bacon brittle and accompanied with spears of lemony asparagus (she loves big kicks of lemon on green things like spinach).
It's a great dish, one that fits Datz/Dough's commitment to all things bacon, the sumptuous texture of the sweet scallops perfectly balanced out by the crunch and smokiness of the brittle. But it's a signature dish that is dipping a little close to self-plagiarism — she's done a spin on this many places she's worked.
I like to think that this is the place where the gloves come off and Macchia will show the Tampa Bay area what she can do. With simpatico owners, a gorgeously whimsical space and an edgy wait staff, it would be nice if this talented chef had finally come "home." With initial dishes like a little bowl of bright fuschia baby beet risotto kissed subtly with Pernod ($6), it sure seems likely.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.