D'Amico Kitchen follows up legendary era with chic Italian

Famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is replaced at the Chambers—now what?

For quite a long stretch, in the restaurant world, at least, where time is measured in a ratio like that of dog years, D'Amico Cucina was the pinnacle of fine dining in the Twin Cities. From the late '80s to perhaps the mid-'90s, Cucina's luxurious Italian fare, elegant dining room, and top-notch service made it one of the best spots for deal-making and celebrating among the moneyed class.

But as time passed, attitudes about what constituted a great restaurant shifted toward something more relaxed. Dishes made with chicken livers and cold-smoked salmon replaced foie gras and lobster. Just after the millennium arrived, City Pages pronounced the culinary emperor's nakedness: Cucina's food could be good, certainly, but rarely did it meet the expectations of a $100 meal.

Earlier this summer, after more than two decades in business, Cucina closed its doors. Then, within days, the D'Amico family, which owns a mini-empire of eateries in Minnesota and Florida, announced that they'd be replacing Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant in the Chambers Hotel with a casual Italian concept called D'Amico Kitchen.

Greens worth envy: The chicory salad with prosciutto, fresh figs, balsamic vinegar, and buffalo mozzarella
Jana Freiband
Greens worth envy: The chicory salad with prosciutto, fresh figs, balsamic vinegar, and buffalo mozzarella

Location Info

Map

D'Amico Kitchen

901 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

Details

D'AMICO KITCHEN
901 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.767.6999, Web site
appetizers $8-$11; entrées $10-$29

There are several ways to interpret Chambers Kitchen's closure and what it says about the Twin Cities dining scene. Were we all a bunch of rubes who didn't appreciate international cuisine? Or were we simply protesting the idea that we needed an outsider to show us what to do? Perhaps some of the fusion food—raw tuna pizza—went too far, and the basement digs were too dank. Or maybe we were all just creeped out by the bull's head in the formaldehyde tank.

Whatever the case, the new D'Amico Kitchen presents Italian fare in a way that's hard to find in the Twin Cities—with an approach as urban and contemporary as the hotel's chic setting. The idea, says Cucina's former chef, John Occhiato, who now leads the Kitchen's staff, was to work with ingredients a bit more modest than those used at Cucina, but to apply cooking techniques that are just as exacting. Much of the rich, French influence found in Cucina dishes has been stripped away. "There's not one-tenth the amount of butter here as there was there," Occhiato jokes.

The Chambers' sleek, white dining room has been softened with warm color accents, and its formerly museum-like walls have been brightened with Venetian plaster in coral and periwinkle. Striped orange light fixtures and an ornate mirror also help to add a little more history to the space. (It seems that the contemporary, aloof-feeling designs found in the restaurants in the Chambers, Guthrie, and Walker, which all opened during Minneapolis's post-millennial architectural boom, never caught on with diners. The Guthrie's restaurant has already been redecorated, and the Walker's 20.21 is starting to look dated.)

A wine refrigerator now lines the narrow walkway along the central stairway, as does a salvaged Cucina chandelier and a waiters' service station. Instead of reinforcing the restaurant's casual feel, though, the stacks of plates, bins of silverware, and horn-shaped graters arranged on the service table seemed sloppy. Giant rounds of Parmesan stacked like tires looked a bit, well, cheesy. The restaurant is surely constrained by its basement kitchen, but the setup seemed as out of place as might a buxom broad, drunk on cheap red wine, who had stumbled over from Buca. One of my friends noticed the table and asked, "Do they serve a buffet?"

They don't, actually, but the hotel restaurant has pretty much everything else. It offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night dining in addition to room service and catering. The chic, sunny, street-level dining room has views that lend it more urban energy than most downtown eateries. And it's still a perfect spot for a classy power breakfast or business lunch. During daytime meals, D'Amico Kitchen doesn't usually get too crowded, so the staff attends to every detail. Ask for lemon in your water and a wedge is cut along the peel and positioned on the rim in an artistic vertical. Leave your seat for a moment and a passing waiter refolds your napkin.

D'Amico Kitchen makes standard American-style plates of bacon and eggs, but also an Italian's morning meal of bruschetta topped with honey butter, house-made ricotta, pine nuts, currants, and prosciutto. D'Amico's lemon ricotta pancakes aren't as light as those at Hell's Kitchen, but you're also not dining in a dungeon mobbed by convention visitors.

The brief lunch menu offers antipasti, pastas, sandwiches, and salads, as well as a few entrées that overlap with those on the dinner list. The dinner menu's roasted suckling pig is, at lunch, tucked into a soft ciabatta roll with tomato and vinegar-kissed onions. Even better, they serve my new favorite salad: chicory and frisée, whose bitter bite is offset by a sweet-salty interplay of prosciutto, fresh figs, syrupy balsamic vinegar, and soft, funky buffalo mozzarella, which is light-years better than the milder, rubbery cow's-milk version.

But the best way to experience D'Amico Kitchen is by snacking your way through a series of small plates, treating the place as an Italian version of 112 Eatery. The dinner menu's extensive antipasti list has several selections of meat, seafood, salads, crudo, vegetable, and fried dishes. Nearly everything sounded good: I haven't been so excited about small plates since Solera opened six years ago.

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