D’Amico Disappearing, But For How Long?

The big news is D’Amico Cucina closing. If you haven’t heard, yes, it’s true. The restaurant that more or less invented contemporary fine dining in this town is dimming the lights. Their last night will be Saturday, June 27.

This is especially sad news for a few reasons. First, this is the restaurant that launched an empire (all the D’Amico and Sons, as well as Masa, Café and Bar Lurcat, and Campiello), not to mention half the chefs working in independent restaurants in town (Tim McKee, Doug Flicker, Isaac Becker), and even if all the little acorns have grown into strong trees, it’s still upsetting to see the mighty oak fall.

Second, D’Amico’s closing is sad because I thought they were doing very strong work lately. In fact, I called them the best Italian restaurant in the city recently. I was particularly impressed with chef John Occhiato’s ability to use local farm ingredients to make D’Amico’s haute Italian more relevant, fresher, and lighter than it had been in years. He seemed to have a very graceful understanding of what ingredient-driven Italian food meant in a way that was meaningful in the Midwest.

There is, however, good news—good news that the gossip mills are spinning in a very interesting way. Chef Occhiato will be staying in town as part of the D’Amico empire, as will many of the servers, many of whom are the best in town. The plan, Richard D’Amico told me, is to open a new Italian restaurant in Minneapolis with Occhiato as head chef, and, in the mean time, to shift the servers to Masa and Lurcat until that restaurant opens.

“Business is actually as good as it’s been for a while,” he told me, “but the kind of fine dining we were doing—180 seats—maybe you can support that in London, New York, or Paris, but not here. Today fine dining is 80 seats, more atmospheric, less formal. After 9/11 we lost 45 percent of our sales, and they just never came back. We’ve been supporting it for the last couple years, and we just didn’t see a major turnaround coming, so here we are. It’s hard to close it, it’s like our baby.”

So, that would date D’Amico’s heyday from 1987, when they opened, through 9/11, which marks a particular era in Minneapolis history. Cucina was one of the last remnants of the Minneapolis that existed before I-394, the municipal parking garages, Target Center, Block-E, and all the sports bars, one of the last holdouts of a warehouse district that was all art-galleries and fine or artsy restaurants (the New French Café, Chez Bananas, Faegere’s). D’Amico told me that the restaurant also never really recovered from the change in business meal deductions. (In 1986 business meal tax deductions changed from 100% to 80%, and in 1993 to 50%. Curse you Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton!)

D’Amico wouldn’t spill any more information about the new restaurant, though I did ask, “Northern Italian?” To which he said: “Italian.”

I’ll decode that for you. In restaurant-speak, “Northern Italian” means “fancy and expensive,” Southern Italian means “cheap, possibly hipster-ish.” (The southernmost parts of the Italian boot are very hip in restaurant circles right now, as led by restaurants like San Francisco’s A16.) And plain old Italian means “popular, likable by many.”

Now, here’s where that skeleton of on-the-record truth gets very interesting. I talked to three local power players in the past couple days, all of whom are saying that this new, popular Italian D’Amico restaurant will be going in to the Chambers and replacing the Jean Georges restaurant.

This sounds likely to me because:
• The D’Amicos are keeping the whole Cucina kitchen staff on payroll, with benefits, which isn’t cheap.
• The D’Amicos are not afraid of downtown; witness the success of Masa.
• Ralph Burnet has seen mega-success moving a landmark Minneapolis restaurant, namely, Manny’s, into a hotel—The W at the Foshay—so why not do it a second time?
• As an inside Baby Boomer power-player to Baby Boomer power-player move, it just makes sense.

On the other hand, it sounds unlikely because:
• It almost makes too much sense. It could be one of those scenarios in which deductive logic—plus a desire for a locally-liked bunch of people to triumph over coastal bigwigs—might trump the truth.

Still, enough high-level people have told me it’s a done deal (and would happen in the fall) for it to pass my smell test, for which I’m willing to go out on a limb and publish a retraction if need be.

Of course, I did go to Richard D’Amico for confirmation or denial, but really got neither. “All I can say is we’re working on a downtown project, at this point nothing is done,” he said.

Have you talked to [Ralph] Burnet about this? I asked. “I talk to so many people. During the whole history of our company, we’ve had an Italian restaurant downtown, and we would like to continue to have an Italian restaurant downtown.”

It doesn’t sound like just rumors to me, I countered. “I’ve heard rumors that we’re going into the Ivy too,” he said, meaning that they would replace Porter & Frye.

“Are you?” I asked.

“No,” said D’Amico.

So, on the record, D’Amico says no to replacing Porter & Frye, but doesn’t say no about replacing Jean Georges. He also says I’ll be the first to know (which I seriously doubt).

So, nothing is certain. Except that Cucina as we know it really is closing. In the conversation we had before I heard all the rumors, Richard D’Amico told me he did have some parting words for the local community: “We appreciate all the people who celebrated business deals here, wedding proposals, birthdays, who loved good Italian food for all these years. They put us on the map, they supported us for a really long time, and we’re grateful. In a way the hardest part of this is feeling like you’re letting down a big group of people that helped us get started. And to all those people, we’re really grateful.”

Cucina is also running a sort of series of best-of-all-time dinners through the 27th, if you want to sample a bit of history, now’s the time.

D’Amico Cucina
100 North 6th Street, Minneapolis