Domenico’s serves pizza lakeside in Mission Viejo

Server Suzanne Miller holds the most popular dish at Domenico's, the ground pepperoni pizza in the new lakeside patio.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In 1954, a New York transplant named Domenico Spano opened a pizzeria in Long Beach’s Belmont Shores with his wife, Beverly. Their signature pizza is still a favorite today, and Orange County is finally getting a slice.

Domenico’s on the Lake opened just after Labor Day in Mission Viejo and is an upscale take on the original location, said to be one of the first restaurants in California to serve pizza.

“People ask if we are a New York-style pizza or a Chicago-style pizza,” said Domenico’s co-owner, Mike Rhodes. “We always say we are Domenico’s style, because I don’t know anyone else that makes pizza the way we do.”

Domenico's most popular ordered pizza is the ground pepperoni pizza.
Domenico’s most popular pizza is the ground pepperoni pizza, shown at the restaurant’s new location in Mission Viejo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Domenico’s pizza, along with a handful of other menu items, has been made the same unique way for 67 years.

“We kind of make it backwards from tradition,” said Rhodes.

Pizza dough is made in house and topped with slices of mozzarella, then house-made marinara is poured over the cheese. The pie is finished with the meat and vegetable toppings, like the house-ground pepperoni. The result is a crispy, caramelized top that amplifies the savory spiciness of the pepperoni and a crust that isn’t weighed down by lots of wet sauce.

“By doing it that way, the cheese melts into the crust and kind of keeps the crust crispy. Things don’t get as soggy, because the sauce isn’t directly on the crust,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said no one is truly sure about the origins of Spano’s pizza technique.

“From what I am told, in Coney Island in New York, there were some places that made it the way we do,” said Rhodes. “I don’t know for certain, but it is possible that Domenico may have eaten at some of those places, and that was his inspiration.”

Rhodes, who has a restaurant background that includes owning Russell’s and Knowlwood burger chains, purchased Domenico’s in 2004 and said expanding the concept to Orange County has always been an interest.

Co-owner Mike Rhodes stands in the dining room of the new Domenico's on the Lake in Mission Viejo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“So many customers in Long Beach have said, ‘You need to have a Domenico’s in Orange County. We want you in Orange County,” said Rhodes. “So for the past several years we have been looking for a suitable location that would work for us.”

A little over a year ago, the space formerly occupied by Peppino’s, another beloved Orange County Italian restaurant in Mission Viejo became available.

“It seemed to fit all of our need and the city of Mission Viejo really indicated that they were in need of a nice restaurant,” Rhodes said. “They are tired of the chains and are looking for something a little more special.”

Rhodes said the expansion also allowed the restaurant to make some changes that just were not possible at the Belmont Shores location.

Domenico's is now open at its new location in Mission Viejo.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“The kitchen is three times as big as our original location. Here we have a unique opportunity to be able to expand the menu and do a lot more than we could ever do in Long Beach, where we are pretty much limited to pizza and pasta,” said Rhodes.

A new menu section titled, “Specialties of the House” has more upscale offerings diners won’t find at the original location, like wild shrimp scampi and filet mignon. The Mission Viejo location also has a full bar, which means craft cocktails and an extensive wine list are now part of the concept.

Rhodes said they also didn’t want to attempt to recreate the charm of the original location.

“The original location is really kind of your quintessential Italian restaurant. It is all red leather booths and dim lighting … It is almost out of a scene from ‘The Godfather,’” Rhodes said. “You know, a lot of restaurants try to look like an old school Italian restaurant. We actually are an old school Italian restaurant.”

Instead of trying to fabricate that old school style, Domenico’s on the Lake moves in the direction of easy elegance, with dark wood, natural light and indoor and outdoor dining for approximately 200 people.

The lakeside patio offers views of Lake Mission Viejo and Saddleback Mountain, and as one of the only restaurants directly on the lake, Domenico’s also allows guests to arrive by boat via a nearby dock at the Plaza Del Lago shopping center.

A small group was milling in front of Domenico’s on the Lake on a recent Tuesday afternoon, waiting for the restaurant to open at 3 p.m. Rhodes said business has been good so far, but opening a restaurant during a pandemic hasn’t been easy.

“Probably our biggest challenge has been finding, hiring and training the staff,” Rhodes said, a problem many restaurants have struggled with since coming back from lockdown.

Once the restaurant is able to increase its staff, Rhodes said they plan to expand the restaurant’s open hours.

“We are hoping after the holidays to open for lunch and eventually do Sunday brunch,” Rhodes said.

For now, there is dinner service, happy hour and of course, pizza.

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