Dominic Tedesesco isn’t letting the closure of his La Jolla restaurant, Dominic’s Table, spoil his soup. For the past two weeks, he’s been working as the head chef at Barbarella Restaurant, 2171 Avenida De La Playa, and he says he feels appreciated in the position and delighted to be making a difference.
“My goal has always been to make people happy with food, and this is the perfect place for me to do that,” said Tedesco as he placed the finishing flourishes on a new mango cheesecake with Italian cherries for his new bosses to sample.
“We can’t eat that, it’s artwork!” raved Jean Hamerslag, whose son, Blake, bought the La Jolla Shores institution last September when its founder, Barbara Beltaire, retired.
“I just love all the ideas Dominic comes up with,” Hamerslag said. “He’s so creative with his food. It’s like we have our very own celebrity chef!”
It was a perfect storm of misfortune that doomed Dominic’s Table, the Italian eatery that Tedesco opened in 2017 on the site of the former Roppongi sushi at 875 Prospect St.
“It was kind of a struggle from the start because my investors disappeared as soon as we signed the lease,” Tedesco said, “Then they showed up three months later and it took a year to get all the money they were supposed to put in.”
Compounding the problem was the area’s temporary downturn.
“There were 46 empty spaces right by me,” Tedesco explained. “The Museum of Contemporary Art was closed, obviously, so nobody had a reason to go down where I was anymore.”
At one point, Tedesco said, he hired a sign-spinner to lure customers over.
“It worked and people started walking in, but it nearly got me run out of La Jolla!” he joked.
So he put the kibosh on the spinner and then on Dominic’s Table itself.“Sometimes, you have to know when to shoot the horse,” he explained.
It was Tedesco’s choice to remain in town instead of returning to Las Vegas, his home for the previous decade, where he had opened Dean’s Place behind the Strip, was a personal chef to celebrities at the MGM Grand and where he still has ties to a former catering business. While dealing with the frustration of Dominic’s Table, he found himself simultaneously falling in love with La Jolla.
“I’m staying,” he said. “I just love the ocean and the people. This is the greatest place to be.”
At the same time, Barbarella — an institution since 1999 — was searching for something special to excite its loyal customers, many of whom were disappointed by Beltaire’s retirement and worried about changes to things that they liked about the restaurant.
“We’re really not changing things, because it has worked for 19 years,” said Blake, who was personally groomed by Beltaire for six months before she retired. “But also, we’re not keeping it exactly the same. It’s a delicate dance.”
Tedesco’s menu tweaks are showing up slowly. They typically begin as specials — which he changes twice daily — heavy on Italian recipes from his parents, whose eatery in his hometown of Kentucky inspired his vocation.
“There are a lot of great things at Barbarella’s,” Tedescro said. “We’re going to make sure some of those traditions remain and are at the top of their game.”
Re-situating himself so quickly also means no gap in Tedesco’s side career producing and hosting TV shows about cooking. He was doing it years before the Food Network and says he has four shows in pre-production right now.
“In one, I really want to focus on showcasing La Jolla,” he said. “It’s 90 percent Barbarella and the rest brings in places around La Jolla.”
Tedesco said he can’t see opening his own restaurant again.
“I don’t feel like I need to prove to myself or anybody else who I am anymore,” he said. “I’m just happy with a place that’s home, where people know they can come in and see me and enjoy my food.”