“Holy cow!” exclaimed Dominic Dean, his eyes wide as saucers, as he stared in awe and excitement at the towering sandwich placed in front of him.
The 16-year-old Milwaukee native is an up-and-coming food critic with a special twist — a focus on positivity and kindness.
Dominic, who is on the autism spectrum, struggled with communication skills for years. Then, in spring 2019, his eighth-grade teacher recognized his passion for food, cooking shows and the restaurant business and encouraged him to begin reviewing local establishments as a way to improve his writing and speaking skills.
“Because he’s so highly interested, it’s a good jumping-off point,” said Dominic’s mother, Amy Dean.
Since then, Dominic has reviewed nearly 100 restaurants in the Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis and, now, Pittsburgh areas. He boasts nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook and has become somewhat of a local celebrity in the Wisconsin food scene.
Amy Dean described the transformation in her son’s communication abilities as a “complete 180.”
When Dominic first began reviewing, she said, he struggled to order for himself at restaurants and speak to staff. But he quickly came around when his efforts were met with kindness and acceptance.
“My favorite part is meeting new people,” Dominic said. “It’s so much fun getting to know them (restaurant owners) and talking to them.”
This week, Dominic and his parents are in Western Pennsylvania for a family reunion. Naturally, his mother and father, Matt Dean, had to help arrange a special food review at a Pittsburgh staple: Primanti Brothers.
Upon the family’s arrival at the Primanti Brothers in Greensburg, they were greeted by staff and company marketing specialist Ryan Wilkinson. In line with Dominic’s routine, he asked Wilkinson about the history of the restaurant chain and what makes Primanti’s unique.
Dominic was all smiles as he spoke with Wilkinson and eventually settled on the classic Primanti’s Pittsburgher sandwich, a towering monstrosity complete with fries and Primanti’s signature coleslaw.
“It’s very delicious and very awesome,” Dominic said with a smile between gaping bites of the sandwich.
His cousin and the Dean family’s local guide, Aileen Reid, said she is deeply moved by Dominic’s journey.
“It has a lot to do with positivity,” Reid said. “I was just so inspired by his story and positivity.”
Dominic and Reid shared laughs and jokes as they ate, while Matt Dean feverishly typed out notes on his phone, serving as the unofficial scribe, photographer and videographer of “Dominic’s Milwaukee Restaurant and City Reviews.”
Dominic said he dreams of one day hosting his own show on the Food Network. And his family is certain he will get there one day. His parents firmly believe in supporting Dominic’s goals and ambitions.
“He doesn’t have special needs,” Reid said. “He has special talents.”
Together, the Deans want to encourage other families with special-needs children to help their kids “find their niche” and “nurture their passions.” For Dominic, leaning into his interests has opened up worlds of opportunities for him, his mother said.
“Follow your passion with no instance on where it will take you,” Matt Dean said.
To no surprise to his parents, Dominic nearly licked his plate clean, a testament to his devotion to food. While the family is uncertain what the next stop on their food adventures will be, they are sure they will take it on as a family, guided by Dominic’s love for food and sharing positivity.
“It’s just so great to share being positive,” Dominic said.
Colleen Hammond is a Tribune-Review intern through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.