A D'Amico original

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2010 - 9:35 AM

New name, old address, and memorable flavors.

Aren't ultimatums silly?

You know the kind: "If [insert name of odious politician] wins the election, I'm moving to Canada."

Sure you are, and drop me a line from Saskatchewan. I overheard a doozy at the gym the other day, from a self-proclaimed and obviously disgruntled Chambers Kitchen fan, operating, perhaps, out of loyalty. "I don't care what you say," he said. "I'll never step foot inside D'Amico Kitchen."

Hey, it's a free country. Yes, celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his high-voltage crew no longer illuminate the Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, and yes, locals Richard and Larry D'Amico are now running the show, with the temerity to drop the Chambers name in favor of their own and stamp their familiar Italian imprint on the menu.

The switch was a shrewd move on hotelier Ralph Burnet's part. Don't get me wrong, I was all over Chambers Kitchen, and sat shiva for it when Burnet pulled the plug. But it's history, and why not move on with one of the state's most recognizable food names? Let's face facts: Despite how we insecure Minnesotans love to look down upon our local success stories, "D'Amico" resonates with a whole heck of a lot more of us than "Vongerichten."

Although it's cloaked in familiar trappings, the reinvented restaurant is an original. Well, sort of. The D'Amicos pulled their Chambers enterprise out of a hat, turning it around in a dizzyingly short time. Occasional traces of D'Amico Cucina (the company's 21-year-old flagship that closed a few weeks before the Chambers deal went down late last summer) come peeking through -- the exceptional cracker-crust pizzas, the over-the-top lobster gnocchi -- and the overlap is probably not accidental, as the two properties share the same chef, John Occhiato.

Don't know him? You should. Occhiato was Cucina's last top chef, and perhaps because he followed some very formidable footsteps (Tim McKee, Seth Bixby Daugherty, J.P. Samuelson), his work was often -- and unfairly -- taken for granted. But in this higher-profile venue, I'm hoping that Occhiato will get the recognition he deserves, in part because he's giving the restaurant the heart that it was missing during its Vongerichten years.

One of my most frequently asked questions is, "Where can I find a good Italian restaurant?" My new response is, "9th and Hennepin." Occhiato's passionate cooking is both rustic and detail-oriented, and, best of all, his cleverly packaged menu manages to remain mindful of his one-size-fits-all hotel audience while appealing to the demands of frequent drop-ins. That almost never happens.

My favorite things

Sometimes I become obsessed with a dish, for no apparent reason. Does that ever happen to you? With D'Amico Kitchen, it's an endearingly cute little crock filled with ultra-creamy polenta and topped with mushrooms. I think of it as a preview of coming attractions: So simple, so comforting, so delicious, and so I'm-not-sharing-it-with-anyone. I harbor similar feelings for a salad of trout, golden beets, apples and hazelnuts, a mesmerizing array of smoky, sweet, tart and crunchy. I also developed an instant affection for the combination of cool, ruby-tinted raw tuna against pale green avocado and bright orange melon, punctuated by a bright citrus sauce and sparkling salt crystals.

Although Occhiato's no longer cooking for the expense-account crowd (more like his target audience went from Platinum to Gold Card), he's treating ingredients as if each were a big-bucks extravagance: curing tuna until it radiates luxury with every velvety bite, stirring gentle hints of saffron in crisp-shelled risotto balls filled with bits of succulent braised veal, injecting the heady scent of truffle so it accents but not overpowers a swoon-worthy risotto, turning cauliflower florets into can't-eat-just-one delights, and cooling spicy lamb meatballs with yogurt.

The pastas are particularly noteworthy, brimming with big, bold flavors. Pasta cut in thin, delicate ribbons is dressed with thimble-sized lamb meatballs, pungent olives and flecks of fresh mint, and it's hard to imagine a dish more satisfying on a cold January night. Ditto spaghetti that's tossed with tiny clams and zesty sausage, and a beautifully constructed Bolognese clinging to pappardelle. Even when he's showing restraint, Occhiato's instincts are right on the money. Case in point: filling tender ravioli with ricotta and chèvre and finishing it with pings of tomato, basil and speck.

A farmhouse meal in the shadow of the IDS Tower? Yep, in the form of mellow roasted cipollini onions paired with juicy, flavorful chicken. Chewy dates add a second subtly sweet flavor note to deeply caramelized scallops. Charred and sliced hanger steak, cooked precisely to order, boasted a swaggering beefy bite. Then there's the outstanding meatball sandwich, the lighter-than-air veal meatballs dressed in red sauce and stuffed into sturdy ciabatta.

Wake-up call

Breakfast is a standard-setter. The sunny, serene room is a more effective mood-enhancer than any pharmeceutical and the menu brims with winning touches, from freshly squeezed juices and a decadent hot chocolate to sizzling house-made, maple-glazed pork sausage.

The star of the show: a few toasted, butter-soaked spears of chewy grilled bread sharing a plate with thin-shaved proscuitto and a dollop of ricotta dotted with pine nuts and sweet currants and drenched in an extravagantly floral honey. If it wouldn't inevitably lead to a looser notch on my belt, I'd happily consume it every morning for the foreseeable future.

The D'Amicos have nipped-and-tucked the contemporary setting, and the results are uneven. Moving the dining room up from the basement deserves applause, but now the airy street-level space -- formerly a lounge -- is claustrophobically jammed with tables. A few well placed splashes of rich color -- their paint-chip names are probably "Copper River Salmon" and "Lapis Lazuli" -- defrost some of the room's Hitchcock Blonde chill -- as do eye-catching new light fixtures -- but the result feels a bit less Dwell and more Better Homes & Gardens.

A showy captain's table puts some food-related activity in the spotlight -- the kitchen is buried downstairs and out of sight -- but it's backed by an ungainly wine refrigerator that appears yanked from a SuperAmerica store. Oh, and the room feels as drafty as it always did.

Two under-the-radar daytime deals: an unbeatable lunch special -- three items for $10 -- and free valet parking during weekday breakfast and lunch. If they aren't enough incentive to lure even the most adamant members of the anti-D'Amico crowd, said individuals are a lost cause.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757

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  • Main dining room

  • D'AMICO KITCHEN ★★★1/2

    Location: 901 Hennepin Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-767-6960, www.damico-kitchen.com.

    Hours: Breakfast 6:30 to 11 a.m. weekdays; lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays; bar menu 2 to 5 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

    Atmosphere: A kinder, gentler, but still plenty stylish Chambers.

    Service: In most cases, it's, "Wow, the D'Amicos really know how to run a restaurant," but there are the occasional, and frustrating, "Can you believe this is a D'Amico restaurant?" lapses.

    Sound level: Energetic but not ear-splitting when full.

    Recommended dishes: Pizzas, tuna with avocado, trout salad, polenta with mushrooms, mint fazzoletti, scallops, meatball sandwich, chocolate spice cake.

    Wine list: Extensive Italian-Californian, with the occasional value price. Full bar, with all the requisite sexpot cocktails.

    Average prices: At dinner, first courses $10, pastas $10 and $18, second courses $21, desserts $8. Breakfast and lunch entrees $13.

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