The D'Amicos sure know how to run a restaurant.
It's not just the squadrons of exhaustively trained staffers that are kept on the company's payroll, or the polished salutation that's drilled into the folks manning the door, or the obvious passion for premium food and drink. Their work stands out because brothers Richard and Larry D'Amico -- with an assist by their longtime corporate chef and idea engine, Jay Sparks -- are masters at developing culinary talent.
More Twin Cities restaurants than I can count have been launched by creatives who once punched the D'Amico time clock, but what diners should also appreciate about the company is that it rewards hard work and ingenuity by promoting from within. It's like MGM during Hollywood's golden era, when the studio nurtured its stable of stars by creating vehicles that allowed them to sparkle.
The latest example: Michael Dalton, a veteran of the company's nearby Campiello, is now running the show at Parma 8200, the D'Amicos' latest Italian-inspired venture. Dalton's cooking isn't flashy or trendy, but given his meticulous attention to detail, it doesn't need to be, either. Witness the pork ragu that he liberally spoons over cavatelli.
The recipe, inspired by his mother and grandmother, involves slow-cooking gently sweet country-style ribs in tomatoes and herbs until one flavor falls into the next. It's so good that it could flip lifelong vegetarians in a single bite.
The same can be said for the pot roast he glams up with a slow and intense red wine braise accented with cinnamon and nutmeg trace notes; the fall-apart, succulent results speak for themselves. Oh, and if anyone is wondering how to prepare polenta, a basic that's ruined all too often, call Dalton. He knows how.
One of the many reasons why I'm mourning the passing of summer and fall is the demise of several of Dalton's delectable salads. I'm not sure where he's tracking down watermelon that still tastes like watermelon, but he is, bouncing its fragile, juicy goodness against just about every chord on a person's taste buds, from the sweetness of basil and the bite of lemon and red onion, to the hot pop of chile-infused oil and the cool softness of barely aged goat's milk cheese. The salad is as colorful as it is delicious.
The same can be said for the tomatoes he's sourcing, which miraculously continue to boast peak flavor. Sadly, it won't be long before circumstances will dictate moving on, but until then I know I'm going to enjoy his bruschetta, just plain-old grilled bread topped with that ever-popular combination of ruby red tomatoes, fragrant basil, olive oil and sinfully rich burrata. The classic caprese salad, switched up with oregano and pungent olives, will be similarly mourned when it disappears.
The menu's eight pastas are first-rate. The kitchen cranks out a delicate, nearly translucent ravioli, then, to no one's surprise, demonstrates admirable restraint, filling them with a dab of house-made ricotta, a bit of basil and a touch of tomato. Perfect. Two other dazzlers include the toothy linguine, tossed with tiny clams coaxed open in a garlic-infused white wine steam, and fusilli that's splashed in a vibrant basil pesto. All are sold in pasta-course and entree-sized options, and it takes an iron will to refrain from indulging in the latter.
Oh, and the meatballs! They're a winning blend of ground chuck and ground pork, seasoned with plenty of dried oregano and kept moist with ricotta and milk-soaked bread crumbs. Dalton serves them with his carrot-sweetened marinara sauce over spaghetti and wedged into a sandwich; both variations are eye-rollingly good.
Because he's catering to an office crowd -- Parma is located in the same complex that has been ruled by Kincaid's since what feels like the beginning of time -- Dalton offers standards such as salmon, chicken, hanger steak and a tower of a burger, all pleasantly rendered but not so out there that they distract from the business at hand, namely, grown-ups conducting business over lunch or dinner.
Another quality, too often sidetracked: Dishes that should be hot arrive piping hot, and dishes that should be cold arrive properly chilled. Here's another reason to admire Dalton's sure-handed handiwork: Dishes such as crisply fried mozzarella-filled risotto balls, or pristinely elegant beef carpaccio, made using a thinly pounded, barely seared cut of inside round, take the place of pizzas, Caesar salads or other cliched benchmarks of Italian restaurant-dom. Hurrah.
I encountered a few missteps. The appealing sweet-sour aspects of a pork tenderloin, just a few nudges away from being too rare, was overpowered by a clumsy, four-alarm blaze of a chile-flake crust. Each meal starts with a plate of cheese- and garlic-toast, and I'm torn; on some visits, I found it cheesy (literally and figuratively), and on others I couldn't scarf it down fast enough. Dalton is buying first-rate prosciutto, mortadella and coppa for his salumi platters, but with the charcuterie craze sweeping the city, wouldn't house-made products be more interesting? Oh, and while I'm no one to carp -- anyone who has met me will confirm that mispronunciation is practically my middle name -- someone ought to remind the staff that there's no "x" in espresso.
Delicious desserts aplenty
D'Amico pastry whiz Leah Henderson has forged a half-dozen doozies that echo Dalton's simple-is-best mantra. Along with expertly made sorbets and gelatos, best in show are the crisp little semi-sweet chocolate-filled panini and a beyond-luscious butterscotch panna cotta, topped with a pool of decadent caramel and a dollop of mascarpone. It's inspired by the similarly flavored budino -- prepared by Nancy Silverton at Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles -- that has been the object of the kind of rapturous prose usually reserved for People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue. Henderson's version, while different, is no less deserving of slavishly overheated praise; I don't know that I've lapped up a more compelling dessert this year.
The decor, all sophisticated browns and tans that wink toward a 1970s flashback, works overtime to gloss over the fact that the restaurant is buried deep within a soulless and confusing collection of office towers (let's hope the D'Amicos got a bump on the rent, because describing the location as "buried deep" is no exaggeration).
Remember that pretentious "prestigious west Bloomington" real estate sales pitch that erupted a few housing bubbles back? It's too bad that Parma wasn't around at the time, because this highly polished restaurant would have brushed a little much-needed credibility on that much-mocked slogan.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757