D’Amico Kitchen Opens with the Nicest Dining Room in the History of Downtown Minneapolis – But How’s the Food?


What do the Cities’ newest restaurants have in common? Nothing. But here’s your guide to their delights, starting with D’Amico. For the complete version of this feature, see “The New Restaurant Scene.”

 

The new main-floor dining room at the
Chambers, stocked with tens of millions
of dollars in contemporary art, gives
Minneapolis something it’s never had before
—a place fit for visiting royalty.

 

If you ever took an art-history class you should have learned all about the Medicis, the wealthy Florentine family that just about single-handedly paid for the Italian Renaissance. We have them to thank for many of the great works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Their various collections and commissions still form not only the basis of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, but much of Western art and culture. To be perfectly clear about my own biases, this is the kind of conspicuous consumption I can get behind. You want to spend your gold on a private jet and some wristwatches? I don’t much care. You want to pay for the intellectual and aesthetic ball to be carried forward in your time, and possibly for hundreds of years into the future? Now I care.

Ralph Burnet, the local real-estate mogul with the astonishing contemporary-art collection, laid claim to being our local Medici in 2006, when he opened the Chambers and attached a gallery to showcase his collection. However, when globe-trotting great chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was in charge and the hotel’s main restaurant was in the cavernous, strangely echoing and thumping basement, one didn’t really get much contact with that art. Now that Jean-Georges is out and the D’Amico team is in, you do.

D’Amico’s new restaurant is about half the size of the old D’Amico Cucina space, its 30 or so indoor tables laid out in such a way that a good portion are beside one or another semi-priceless pieces of art. For instance, you can have dinner next to Will Cotton’s Candy Stick Forest, which depicts a semi-nude girl in a grove of hyper-real-looking candy trees. Is this pop art a knowing critique of the male gaze? An exploration of the intellect-obliterating appeal of gluttony of all sorts? Or mere porn?

Whatever the true reading of the painting—or rather, the true reading of the painting for you—just having a couple of hours with it to come to your own conclusion is an activity typically reserved for the Medicis of the world. Here, however, you can zip in any lunchtime, get the best meatball hoagie in town for a mere $10, and gaze at the candy painting or one of the many, many others until you feel at peace with it.

That meatball hoagie was the most surprising thing I found at D’Amico Kitchen. It’s in the “Panini” section of the lunch menu, which refers not to pressed panini sandwiches, but all kinds of sandwiches. Order this veal-meatball version and you get a standard Italian-American composition: a long, soft-but-crusty roll filled with a row of terrifically tender, pale meatballs robed in a zesty sauce and mellowed with a blanket of tangy provolone cheese. As soon as you take a bite, the various bold, comforting, sweet-and-spicy parts unite in perfect harmony. “My God,” I found myself murmuring to my lunch date. “It’s everything I like about watching a Jets game on television in New Jersey, plus fine art! Who saw this coming?”

The lunchtime chicken cacciatore, at $12, is another Italian-American triumph. Long-braised, tender chicken is paired with a mushroom-rich tomato sauce and a polenta as creamy as custard. It’s a simple bit of comfort food cooked as perfectly as possible.

Suckling pig with pickled onions
at D’Amico Kitchen.

 

At D’Amico Cucina, chef John Occhiato made his name by livening up the haute Italian menu with fresh local ingredients, and my one worry for the new restaurant is that in trying to broaden its appeal, the staff has made the menu too long.

I counted some 40 different options at dinner, and the level of excellence of the various dishes was not uniform. An appetizer of thinly sliced pork loin, for instance, was terrifically dry, though I could have eaten the accompanying tuna-caper sauce by the quart.

The best appetizer I tried was a delicate hamachi crudo made with tangerine oil and floral and dusky fennel pollen; each bite was flowery, sweet, and complex. Another good option was the spicy fried calamari, a fritto misto of big bunches of parsley, sweet segments of lemon, and squid made a touch fiery with chili flakes. It’s the perfect thing to pair with a glass of bubbly Prosecco or the bar’s excellent Negroni.

Some of the pastas are lovely, especially the tender ravioli filled with real buffalo-milk ricotta and garnished with curls of salty Speck ham. Overall, though, they aren’t as uniformly good as they were at D’Amico Cucina. For instance, the garganelli carbonara I tried one night had a carbonara sauce that was oily instead of rich and custard-like, as if it had broken after sitting for a long time. And black-squid-ink spaghetti with clams and sausage arrived at the table tasting strangely under-seasoned, as if it had gotten only half the sauce it needed.

Entrées like chicken under a brick and roast suckling pig are done simply but well, in a nice understated and competent way. That these dishes are whisked in and out by the legendarily attentive and decorous (and gratifyingly adult) Cucina wait staff, many of whom made the journey to the Kitchen, makes dining here particularly pleasant, as does the wine list, which is long on older vintages at reasonable prices. (When is a new restaurant not a new restaurant? When it opens with a seasoned staff and a back catalog of Brunello.)

Desserts by Leah Henderson are conservative but well-executed. A steamed chocolate spice cake is so lightly spiced and paired with an olive-oil gelato so tame that it would be easy to mistake the dish for a simple flourless chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. The one sweet that seems to relax and dare to be frivolous is the splendid gelato sandwich trio, made with tender, brightly colored Italian macaroons. I couldn’t tell you which I prefer more—the fresh and nutty-tasting bright- green pistachio one or the salty hazelnut-caramel one—but I feel sure that after six or 20 more visits I might narrow it down. Till then I say those macaroons and a cup of so-good-it-must-be-a-luxury-hotel coffee make the best date in town—especially if you need to impress a visiting Italian duke. D’Amico Kitchen, Chambers Hotel, 901 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-767-6960, chambersminneapolis.com

Dara’s take on other restaurants can be found in “The New Restaurant Scene.”

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