The dining dynasty known as D'Amico & Partners reaches far and wide, operating 24 eateries in Minnesota and Florida. And that's just the beginning.

Double or triple that number, and you would get a semi-accurate count of D'Amico alumni steering local wine stores or PR firms, writing popular books or helming country-club programs.

Oh, and restaurants, whether they are owning or operating, running the dining room or the kitchen. It's one big, largely happy extended family.

An amazing number of local mainstays -- from the haute La Belle Vie to the down-home Modern Cafe -- have D'Amico grads doing the cooking. Many, if not most, of these chefs give a ton of credit to D'Amico executive chef Jay Sparks.

"Jay has been my biggest influence," said Isaac Becker, chef/owner of 112 Eatery and a James Beard Award nominee the past two years. "He's the most thoughtful, compassionate, honest cook I've ever seen. There's nothing that's for show or goofy or trendy. It's all about making something delicious."

Becker followed a fairly typical path through the D'Amico world, taking "a pretty substantial pay cut just to get in the door" at D'Amico Cucina in 1994. "It felt like with the quality of food and service, you were in a place that went over the top with trying to do nice things," he said. "You felt like you were working at a special place."

It was special for a reason, not by happenstance.

"They encouraged their cooks to experiment and challenged them," Becker said. "They were very demanding. It wasn't always a picnic working for them.

"If you did a good job, they let you know. But if you were weak in some area, they let you know, too. As a training ground, it's the best place in town to work."

That was true for Becker on his path from sous chef at Cucina through both branches of Campiello and finally Cafe Lurcat before he left to open 112 Eatery.

Niceness matters

Richard and Larry D'Amico came to the Twin Cities in the 1980s and soon had opened Primavera and Atrium Catering at International Market Square, then the higher-end D'Amico Cucina in 1987. Soon thereafter, the D'Amicos also put into place a training program second to none, in terms of both food and service.

"For the front of the house, we always look for people who are nice naturally," said Joan Ferris, managing director of D'Amico's Full Service division. "We don't look for people who will entertain the guests, or teach the guest; we look for people who will serve the guest."

Larry D'Amico's focus was more on the kitchen, and several future culinary stars came through on his watch in the early years, including Lenny Russo (Atrium Catering then, Heartland now) and Jim Grell (D'Amico Cucina then, Modern Cafe now).

In 1989, the D'Amicos hired Sparks, who has been a big part of ensuring culinary quality control ever since, especially as new and notable D'Amico restaurants opened: Azur, Linguini & Bob, Campiello, Café Lurcat, Masa and the new D'Amico Kitchen. Having so many higher-end spots required not only an overall guiding hand but tons of talent; spotting and nurturing that talent became a D'Amico trademark.

Azur was home at varying times to Joan Ida (now at Porter & Frye), David Hahne (later at Pane Vino Dolce and Cave Vin, now in Seattle) and a couple of young guys named Tim McKee and Josh Thoma.

Those two have made the biggest mark on the food scene of any D'Amico alums, moving to Cucina after Azur closed and then leaving to launch La Belle Vie, Solera, Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque and two Barrios. McKee and D'Amico alum Bill Summerville just opened Sea Change at the Guthrie Theater.

Earlier this year, McKee became the first Minnesotan to win a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Midwest. His departure was among D'Amico's most painful, Ferris said.

"One night at Cucina, Tim sent out a crazy-delicious bowl of mussels with saffron zabaglione," she recalled, "and to this day, it remains in my top five list of favorite things I've ever eaten. Shortly thereafter, he announced that he was leaving, and all I could think of was losing the mussels. Don't get me wrong, I love Tim, but those mussels!"

Success, and succession

Having so many chefs leave to strike out on their own necessitates a continuous succession program.

"If you're a chef here, you're always training your replacement," said Barbara Schultz, president of D'Amico Catering. "You have to be secure enough not to be threatened by that."

This succession program is even more essential since D'Amico strives to provide cooks with the kind of all-around training (especially on the business side) needed to run a successful restaurant.

"They're given the financial training, as well," Ferris said. "I think they feel empowered after they leave our company, because they've been learning both sides."

Naturally, not every parting has been amicable. When J.P. Samuelson left D'Amico Cucina in 2000, he told the Star Tribune, "This is not the way I wanted it to end, but sometimes you don't get to write those chapters."

And just as not all the D'Amico restaurants have managed to stay open -- many local gourmets still sigh upon hearing the word "Azur" -- some erstwhile D'Amico chefs have seen their restaurants close despite rave reviews. (The food is only one part of any restaurant's success, of course.)

Doug Flicker and Melinda Goodin had a nice run at Auriga, while Steven Brown garnered critical acclaim at the short-lived Rock Star and the first iteration of Levain.

But success stories are much more prevalent. Anoush Ansari, once an Atrium banquet manager, now is an owner of several eateries, including Mission American Kitchen, Atlas Grill, Flame and Tavern on France. His former Mission chef, Jordan Smith, recently opened the white-hot Black Sheep Pizza.

Ansari got more than good training while part of the D'Amico family: He also met his future wife, Elli.

Cupid's arrows, it seems, have struck early and often at this operation. Becker and Nancy St. Pierre are partners at 112 Eatery and in life, and Ferris and Sparks have been partners for 18 years.

It's all somehow fitting for an enterprise run by a family.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643