Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Higher math at Dominick’s

By James Tobin
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Casa Dominick's, the legendary student hangout, back in its early days. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

Casa Dominick’s, the legendary student hangout, back in its early days. (Image courtesy of U-M Bentley Historical Library.)

The first problem on the mind of Zevi Miller in the late 1970s ran along the following lines:

If K were a pure n-dimensional simplicial complex, and if Γ0(K) were the automorphism group of K [and so on], then what is the minimum number of points M0(n) in K such that Γ0(K) ≅ A, and the minimum number of n-cells M1(n)(A) in K such that Γn ≅ A?

The second problem was where to find a good place to concentrate on this question for several hours at a time, day after day, month after month, while nursing a single caffeinated beverage without getting hassled to buy refills. Earning his PhD in mathematics might not depend on finding a solution to this second problem. But it would help.

So Miller would go over to 812 Monroe Street—the eccentric, rambling restaurant and bar called Casa Dominick’s—pay for a single café mocha, and sidle inconspicuously down to a booth in the basement, where he figured no one would notice him.”I spent incredible amounts of time there,” Miller remembered not long ago. “It was such a lively, cheerful place, and yet you could get work done there, too.”

***

Early in the 20th century, the address had been a neighborhood grocery. After World War I it became a coffee and sandwich shop. By 1959 the business was failing, and Dominick DeVarti spotted an opportunity. A Connecticut native, DeVarti had been a bomber-navigator in World War II. He came to Michigan for an engineering degree on the G.I. Bill, then worked for Kaiser Industries in Ypsilanti, then shifted to construction. He bought and sold three pizzerias (one of them, in Ypsi, to Tom Monaghan; it became the first Domino’s, its name inspired by the original owner), and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Ann Arbor on the Republican ticket in 1957.

About that time, DeVarti saw that 812 Monroe Street—within a few steps of the Law School, the School of Business Administration, the College of Art and Architecture and the School of Education—couldn’t miss as a student emporium if only he could get the food right. So he bought the place in 1959, brought in pizza and Italian submarines—exotic casual fare in those days—and when he won a liquor license, he began to serve homemade sangria in glass jars. Dominick’s was soon the preeminent student hangout in town. In the early 1960s, movie enthusiasts gathered there to found the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and it became the informal point of rendezvous for the radical Students for a Democratic Society.

In the 1970s, DeVarti bought the house next door and joined the two together, with outdoor seating in front and back. For a while he ran a separate white-tablecloth Italian restaurant upstairs, then shifted to Vietnamese food, then turned the second story back over to the pizza-and-sandwich operation. In all those long afternoons with his single café mocha, Zevi Miller often saw Dominick make his rounds through the place. But neither Dominick nor anyone else ever so much as hinted that Miller should either purchase a second café mocha or move along. Miller concluded that no one had even noticed his routine. He had been just another anonymous student in the crowd. After many, many hours, he concluded that, given certain other things:

M1(n)(A)=M0(2)(A)=Σpapαe(pα) when n ≥ 4 [and so on]

That done, Miller was awarded his PhD. His extended explication of the problem he had solved was published in “Transactions of the American Mathematical Society” in 1982. He joined the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he went on to new research in graph theory, graph embeddings, combinatorics and theoretical computer science.

One autumn 10 or 12 years after Professor Miller completed his doctorate, he went back to Ann Arbor to see Miami play Michigan. Before the game, he stopped by Dominick’s. At the counter he found Dominick’s son Rich DeVarti, who had taken over management of the place. Miller told Rich that he remembered Rich’s dad well.”He’s out in back,” Rich said. “Go say hello.”In the garden courtyard where students and football fans filled the benches and chairs, Miller found Dominick DeVarti at his customary table. Dominick looked up at him.”Hey,” Dominick said, “I remember you. You used to go downstairs and sit all afternoon with one mocha.”

***

Rich DeVarti continues to run the place, which still thrives, its menu much the same as it was in the late 1970s, its tables still favored by students in law, business and education, among others. Dominick DeVarti died in 2001.

“The funny thing is,” Zevi Miller said, “he’s the only guy in the world who knew about that part of me—that little ritual that was so important to me.”I’m glad it’s still thriving and I hope it goes on.”

Were you a habitué of Dominick’s? Love their pizza? The patio? Share your memories in the comments section below.

Sources included Annette Churchill, “The Many Moods of Dominick’s,” Ann Arbor Observer (September 1980) and Eve Silberman, “Restaurateur Dominick DeVarti,” Ann Arbor Observer (September 1987).

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN is an author and historian. His new book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency,was published by Simon & Schuster in November 2013. He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.

COMMENTS

  • Anita Mohan Saha - 2001

    I remember wonderful fall afternoons drinking sangria with my friends at Dominicks. I don’t know if I got used to the taste or if it was actually great sangria, but I have been all over the world and have not have better sangria. I miss going back there.

    Reply

  • Erin Copenhaver - 2001

    Dominick’s is one of my favorite memories of Ann Arbor! Any night (or afternoon!) that began there was a good one and that was my introduction to Sangria–now a lifelong love! I moved to Manhattan after graduation and, on a trip back several years after graduation, I brought my (now) husband and he too fell in love with the place. We often talk about starting a ‘Dominicks’ someday, but it sure would be hard to recreate that ‘je ne sais quoi’! Great piece, thanks for the memories!

    Reply

  • Pat Sullivan - 1975

    And to think in all those years I was at U-M I didn’t know Dominicks. I went to Drakes on North U which served a similar purpose for me.

    Reply

  • Gayle Boesky - 1969

    All moments at Dominicks were special. We first went there freshman year on Sunday night because South Quad didn’t serve dinner on Sundays.It remained our go to place after graduating, even after the Zingerman Empire was created.

    Reply

  • Eric M - 1991

    I used to “encourage” Dr. Tanter to conduct his PoliSci Arab/Israeli Conflict seminar there. On more than one occasion he walked into the room only to find a note on the blackboard “At Dominicks. Please join us.”

    Reply

  • K.C. Chomistek - 2002 & 20006

    Dominick’s will always hold a special place in my heart as the quintessential Ann Arbor bar. One of my first dates with my wife was at Dominick’s. Both of us make it a point to return to Dominick’s whenever we are back in Ann Arbor. We even considered holding our rehearsal dinner there, if rain was not a possibility.

    There always seemed to be a buzz around campus when Dominick’s re-opened after the winter hiatus. It signaled that winter was over and summer was around the corner. The first time I had sangria was at Dominick’s and still to this day it is the gold standard, in my mind, of which all others are measured. I am confident there are better sangrias available, but when I try to compare others to the combination of great times with wonderful people and that semi-full Ball jar, it doesn’t get better.

    Reply

  • Lynn Swanson - 1976

    I was a dance major in the mid-seventies and used to take my skinny self up to the white table-cloth balcony sometimes and fill up on those great, pasta dishes while I watched dusk fall over the law quad. The spices in the sauces were exceptional.

    Reply

  • Tom Morris - 1986

    When I started law school in 1983, this was the place where the new law students met for a drink (in canning jars if I recall correctly) and pizza.

    Reply

  • Jennifer Wisnia - 2002

    Dominick´s is hands down my favorite place in Ann Arbor. My best memories are when the first few rays of Spring sunshine appeared and we would spend a whole afternoon at the picnic tables in Dominick´s back garden drinking that fantastic ¨constant buzz¨ out of mason jars.

    Reply

  • Julie Haveri - 1908, 1986

    I remember sitting in the back garden drinking beer in mason jars, and trying to avoid the yellow jackets! I’m glad to hear it’s still there!

    Reply

  • Heather Gruenewald (McKee) - 1999

    One of the best reasons that I lived in Martha Cook my last year of school was the close proximity to Dominick\’s. It has such a European atmosphere…people are not rushed or in a hurry, instead, they are relaxed and savoring life. I have many fond memories of visiting there, during school and after graduation. My husband is from Purdue, and I introduced him to it not long after we met. Now it\’s his favorite hang-out in Ann Arbor too. :)

    Reply

  • Jaclyn Hamilton - 1999

    I came to enjoy Sangria on many afternoons with friends, but my most memorable was drinking sangria and eating pizza before the “Naked Mile” my senior year. I still have the pictures of our big group out on the front patio with our mason jars full of the best sangria on earth!!!

    Reply

  • alan woronoff - 1990

    Dominick’s is ‘hands-down’ my favorite beer place in Ann Arbor. The casual atmosphere, the great tasting beer, the mason jars, the balcony, the back patio. . .All in all, among my favorite memories of A2. Like others, one of the places I always visit when returning.

    Oh, and the Italian meals and nachos are ridiculously plentiful and delicious. THanks for the story, and thanks for the memories, Dominicks.

    Reply

  • Adam Z - 1991, 1996

    Drinking sangria out of jelly jars while an accountant friend of mine tries in vain to teach this history major the difference between a credit and a debit. As a “business man” now, I can’t look at a P&L without immediately wanting a drink!

    Reply

  • Colette Stimmell - 1974

    When I was a student at the U and worked at the Exhibit Museum, I used to stop at Dominicks on my way to work to pick up a cappuccino and a cheese danish. A great way to start the day.

    Every year, when I go to the Ann Arbor Art Fair, I stop by Dominicks for lunch – sandwich and a sangria. It\’s our secret lunch spot that other art fair goers don\’t know about.

    Reply

  • Bob Gurss - BA,1979 and JD,1982

    I remember \”cool\” English or Poli Sci profs would sometimes hold classes downstairs. As a law student, it became and almost daily morning stop between classes for coffee and a donut, and the subs would often pass for dinner the same day.

    Reply

  • Elaine Wangberg Menchaca - 1970, 1979

    Dominicks was “hidden” from regular campus just enough to help me relax with those great sangrias! Sitting outside there with a friend and a
    Mason jar was heaven, I never wanted to leave. I’m so glad it’s still there and will visit.

    Reply

  • Ramona B - 1984

    Oh, Dominick’s, so many moods and so the place to hang out in the early 1980s. You could meet friends for lunch in the fall sunshine between classes or drinks/dinner in the evening… the setting was simultaneously relaxed, collegiate and otherwordly. Our creative writing instructor held a class there one day and bought us all a glass of white wine to go along with the discussion… I’m so happy to know that the place is still thriving and that students are still enjoying it.

    Reply

  • Ellen Sapper - 1975

    Dominicks was an extension of the Residential College. Back in the 70′s when the drinking age was 18 the intensive Spanish class met there daily for sangria and Spanish conversation. My friends were waitresses upstairs in the fancy restaurant. A few years later we watched the hole across the street get deeper and deeper in preparation for the law library that we couldn’t imagine. Meanwhile, if you asked Dominick for an extra napkin (they were as small and thin as could be), he’d tear one in half and just give you half. And they had tuna cans for ashtrays, a custom that lasted until the smoking ban, probably. I am amazed that the sandwiches are the same and actually larger these days. Back then, he was the only sub shop in town. It was a great place to begin to usher in the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

    Reply

  • Peter Hendrickson - 1971

    As an Architecture student before they moved to North Campus. I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance where fellow students and professors could casually meet. The beer, the sandwiches and un-rushed environment. This article has struck a chord with me as the Ann Arbor film festival was one of my highlights and fond memories. Sadly I seldom have an opportunity to return. When I do I hope it\’s one of the landmarks still remaining!

    Reply

  • Terry Thall - 1965

    I was a student in the art school (before it moved to North Campus) and Dominicks was a place we loved to go–if we could get a table away from the law students.
    The afternoon Jack Kennedy was shot we left our class and went down to Dominicks to talk. The rest of the University went home, but being art students we went back to class.

    Reply

  • Rosalin T - 1998

    There is no place else in this world that\’s like Dominick. I had spent many pleasant afternoons in that courtyard enjoying the pizza, sangria, and the sun (not in any particular order). Thank you for the great memories.

    Reply

  • Mariko Fukuda - Blackburn - 1971 and 1973

    Thanks so much for the great article! As a starving young graduate student I actually got a job working at Dominick’s!! He was the kindest, warmest wonderful man teaching this very young girl how to wait on the students and professors!! What wonderful memories!!

    Reply

  • Carolyn Bloom

    I began to go to Dominicks as a High School student, University High was in front of the College of A & D. It was 1964-66. I remember the Beatniks and everyone dressed in black with black turtlenecks drinking coffee and smoking. I tried to emulate them and pretend I was a college student. Later as a student of Art attending A & D, I still loved going to Dominicks. Things had changed a lot in those few years. But I still loved Dominicks his coffee and donuts in the mornings and when I could afford to I would actually have one of his Italian Subs, to this day I remember how good they were! I graduated in 1970, but my family is still in Ann Arbor so I go back occasionally. It is all very different but I have such fond memories of those crazy 60′s days on campus!

    Reply

  • Barbara Falconer Newhall - 1963

    The Tri Delt house is right around the corner from Domininick’s, so a lot of us went over to Dominick’s for coffee after an evening of study at the Business or Law Library. We had to sign in back at the house by 11 or 12 or so — or face Women’s Judiciary Council, which I did at least once. I can’t look at the photo of Dominick’s in the early days without remembering how I’d go home smelling like pizza grease.

    Reply

  • John Worthington - 1982

    It’s comforting to know that a favorite sanctuary is still part of the Michigan experience. Meeting at Dominick’s and sharing a brew with my B-School friends was a highlight of the week for my wife and me. It’s unique places like this that make Ann Arbor such a great college town.

    Reply

  • Andrea Elliott - 1988

    To begin your weekend at Dominick’s while at U-M was practically ceremonious. It meant that classes were done, hair would be let down, and good times would be had by all. The garden atmosphere was unlike any other in Ann Arbor, and that’s really saying something! And of course, the sangria is legendary!

    Reply

  • Bob Weaver - 1954;1957

    I remember Dom’s from my B School days as well as Law School. An escape was always available there! In later years my wife and myself came back to A2 for the Annual Art Fair and while my wife did the perusing of the street galleries I always managed to sneak away to Dominick’s for a beer and a scan of some printed news sheet. It gave me again the escape which was yearned for. Glad to learn that it survives in its hallowed location. Long live Dominick’s!!!

    Reply

  • Bill Ransom - 1960,1963

    I recall enjoying a slice of pizza on Dominck’s “veranda” with fellow first-year law students on a sunny fall day in 1960, while a classmate from Pittsburgh inflicted the “Beat ‘em Bucs” fight song on us to celebrate a Pirates World Series victory. We knew it as a handy and pleasant place to relax for lunch between classes.

    Reply

  • Tamara Koss - 1976; 1988

    For all 4 years of undergrad, I lived at Martha Cook Building, just a block away from Dominick’s. The drinking age was 18, and we used to go sit outside with a beer served in a Ball jar. I took my parents there for a bit of college flavor and they loved it!

    Reply

  • Fiona Saunders - 1994

    I loved meeting there after sailing practice, or to meet with a study group. The pizza was great and the jars were great!

    Reply

  • ELLEN PHILLIPPS (MAIDEN NAME) WALES - 1965:bs/a&d &1966ma/a&d

    IN THE MID-SIXTIES…3 OF US TOOK A COFFEE BREAK MID-MORNING & MID-AFTERNOON…FROM STUDIO CLASSES AT A&D…& OFTEN ORDERED PIZZAS AT NIGHT!…WE JOKED HOW WE COULD TELL WHO WAS IN THE BUSINESS SCHOOL:(WELL DRESSED…WITH COATS & TIES)…& WHO WAS IN THE LAW SCHOOL: (PREPPY & IVY LEAGUE CASUAL)…& WHO WAS IN A&D: (DIRTY JEANS & TURTLE NECKS)!…IN THOSE DAYS WE WERE CALLED \”BEAT NICKS\”…SOON TO BE REFERRED TO AS \”HIPPIES\”!!…WE HAD 4 HOUR STUDIO CLASSES & COULD NOT HAVE MADE IT THROUGH THE DAY WITHOUT DOMINICKS!!!…I\’M SO GLAD THEY ARE STILL AROUND!

    Reply

  • Kathleen Ryan - 1975

    Though I graduated from UM art school in 1975, I actually avoided going to Dominicks while the school was located across the corner on Monroe. It was odd, then, that I went there after graduation to ask Dominick for a job. He of course started me off as a dishwasher, and then I “ascended” to handling the counter, where, as ordered, I dutifully refused to accept any pennies and learned to add prices sans the register (Dominick only wanted final totals loaded in). Needless to say I came to love the place. The kitchen staff was like a little United Nations and I learned an enormous amount about the world and life from all the people I dealt with there. Ben and John (cooks downstairs and upstairs) helped us all decode the protocols necessary to survive, since Dominick in particular was quite the taskmaster…the story is yet to be written about what was ticking in HIS head during those years (though this article was a fascinating start). Thanks so much for all the memories!!

    Reply

  • Sarah Rzewski - 2000

    We used to joke that no one ever left Dominick’s sober. I know that was definitely the case for me! One time during the spring of my senior year, Dominick’s had just opened for the season, and I “stopped by” intending to only stay for a bit because I had to go to the library and write a paper… of course, you know the rest of the story! Sangria strikes again!
    Wonderful place, wonderful memories.

    Reply

  • Ken Winter - 1966, 1974, 1980

    From 1962-1964 I lived next door to Dominick’s in the first-floor apartment in the house at 808 Monroe, which is visible on the right side of the photo atop this article. Our landlord was a then-young fellow named Frank Martin. The windows to the right of the tree trunk at the right in the photo belong to the little study where I wrote many of my undergraduate term papers.

    Frank’s house is still there today; I don’t know where Frank is.

    During that time, Dominick’s “restaurant” was just the first floor of the house in the photo, and it was a notch downscale from what the picture shows. Inside, I remember it as linoleum surfaces, fluorescent lights, and a little counter at the back where we ordered our pizzas. We had various beliefs about what went on upstairs: first, we believed (but never experientially verified) it was a whorehouse; a bit later, it housed an art supply store (if I remember right, I did verify this directly).

    I still live in Ann Arbor. I still love and frequent (well, not that frequent – is “occasional” a verb? If so, I occasional) Dominick’s. It is a local treasure.

    Reply

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