Restaurants come and restaurants go. Except, it seemed, D'Amico Cucina, which managed to maintain its lofty position at the summit of the Twin Cities' food chain for more than 20 years. No more. The luxury downtown Minneapolis restaurant, which regulars have long shorthanded to "Cucina," will serve its last dinner on June 27.
When it opened in the Warehouse District in October 1987, the restaurant immediately set new standards of excellence for the local dining scene. "A sleek and chic alta cucina restaurant, offering the most refined presentation of Italian cuisine presented anywhere in the Twin Cites," is how Star Tribune critic Jeremy Iggers described the restaurant shortly after its debut. It quickly grew into the crown jewel of the D'Amico & Partners dining empire, which now operates 24 restaurants and catering operations in Minnesota and Florida, including Masa and Cafe Lurcat and Bar Lurcat in Minneapolis, Campiello in Eden Prairie and a number of D'Amico & Sons outlets.
Co-owner Richard D'Amico said the fine-dining sector was hit hard by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "We lost 45 percent of our sales, and they never came back," he said. "Our landlords have been so good to us. If not for them, we would have closed three years ago."
Changes in consumer dining habits and in the neighborhood, as well as increased competition, also have taken their toll. The Twins stadium, opening next spring a block to the west, was not a positive development, either. "For the right restaurant, it's a great location, but no one is going to spend $80 to $100 on dinner before they go and watch the Twins play," said D'Amico. "Restaurants like this are dinosaurs."
Next to the collective memories of thousands of lavishly executed dinners -- blurred, no doubt, by the wine cellar's well-curated all-Italian wine list -- the restaurant's most enduring legacy might be its longtime role as an incubator of culinary talent. Its alumni have gone on to create the next generation of influential Twin Cities restaurants, including Tim McKee and Josh Thoma of La Belle Vie, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, Jim Grell of the Modern Cafe and a host of others.
"So many people have come through those doors and went on to do great things. It makes you feel good," said D'Amico. "It's like watching your kids succeeding."
Through its June 27 closing date, the restaurant will be offering retrospective menus of customer favorites from the kitchen's archives, including greatest hits from John Occhiato, who has been executive chef since 2003.
"Twenty-two years, that's a serious run in the restaurant business," said D'Amico. "It makes you proud that you lasted that long, and sad that it didn't go longer."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757