An expression of the heart served on a slice of focaccia. The nostalgia of Italian summers and sun kissed garden vegetables, delicately layered in a wonderful display of colors and aromas. A grandfather’s morning ritual of procuring pizza Bianca, and proper family dinners served on vintage Fiestaware. The memories and spirit of a family, reinvented as di Alba — Chef Nina Clemente’s newly minted focacceria concept — in Downtown’s Arts District.
Here ingredients speak for themselves and passion for the richness of flavor carries on. “There is so much love in it for me and everyone’s palate is so different, I’m not trying to dictate how to eat, what to eat. It’s more genuinely wanting to feed people,” says Chef Clemente. Di Alba — which bears the namesake of Clemente’s mother — is the latest iteration of The Smile, the NYC collaborative which currently carries three locations in Manhattan. The Smile’s di Alba, serves as the West Coast expansion of the brand, executed under Chef Clemente’s interpretation of the classic Italian bread, tweaked and adjusted for California palates.
The menu is heavily influenced by sustainable and seasonal produce (paying homage to her family’s tiered Amalfi Coast garden) which is plentiful and of unparalleled quality in Southern California. “You’re so spoiled in California!” Clemente exclaims, recalling the difference between flavors of New York City produce compared to what California has to offer. For her, simplicity is key, never manipulating ingredients too aggressively; instead relying on quality to speak for itself. “One of my signature dishes that I’ve made through the years is what I call the Italian tuna salad. I get sustainably caught Albacore and poach it in olive oil infused with lemon peel, garlic, shallots, thyme and white wine. It’s flaked like a cooked tuna so it’s not raw. Then I toss it in fennel, red onion and Kalamata olives — tons of basil, parsley, and cherry tomatoes.”
The signature focaccias include the Amalfi which features house-made tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, fresh burrata cheese over a perfectly sliced and lightly toasted focaccia. If color is what you seek, try The Sprouts with lightly sautéed Brussels sprouts and red onion on spelt focaccia and finished with fresh mint. Add ons include sweet Italian sausage and house-made Calabrian chili oil for extra kick.
Focaccias aside, the house salads are mighty tasty featuring old school staples like a classic chopped salad with Fontina cheese and the deliciously dressed Super Grain salad with pomegranate seeds, Pink Lady apples, and herbs. Finished off with a glass of the rosemary lemonade and you just improved your day tenfold.
Having just opened in January, the response has been what Chef Clemente hoped to attract. “The kind of food that I’m serving is tailored to locals. I want people to come back a few times a week because it’s fresh food that you can eat and feel good. I’m not trying to make a drastic statement, it’s more of that genuine feeling of wanting to feed people.”
Written by Ivan Navarro
Photographed by Rebekah Lemire