St. Paul Minnesota Capital City Skyline

When D’Amico Cucina opened in 1987, it quickly became the pinnacle of posh. Waves of Jazz flooded the space with warmth and sparkle – even the walls seemed to glow.

“During its heyday, Cucina would take you away to some fantastical New York City restaurant packed with well-dressed guests with the sublime jazz of Benny Weinbeck playing in the background,” said Richard D’Amico, the restaurant’s co-owner.

The front of house team ran like a fine-tuned machine, the service was impeccable and the kitchen was renowned for putting out incredible and inventive Italian food. Many talented chefs made their way through the kitchen of D’Amico Cucina during its 22-year run. So many, in fact, that when you look through its “family tree,” you realize it is the nucleus of the modern Twin Cities dining scene.

Chefs Jay Sparks and John Occhiato may not be household names, but they were the culinary driving forces behind Cucina for much of its lifetime.


“Back then (in the 1990s), there wasn’t this whole idea of well-known chefs like there is now,” said Tim McKee, now a partner with the Fish Guys. “No one knew who the guys behind the kitchen were.” But today, looking at the roster of chefs who spent time in the kitchen at D’Amico Cucina is looking at a who’s who of the Minneapolis and St. Paul dining scene.

McKee started at D’Amico Cucina as a sous chef, his first-ever sous position, and graduated to chef before leaving to open La Belle Vie.

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Just as McKee was beginning is tenure at Cucina, Doug Flicker was leaving his position there as head chef to open Auriga.

“Working at Cucina for me was always above my head,” said Flicker, now executive chef at Esker Grove. “That forced me to dig deep down and push, push, push. There was never any coasting. It was the foundation for how I spent each day after I left.”

D’Amico Cucina took all the hottest inspiration from both coasts – New York City and Los Angeles – and brought it to Minnesota for the first time. “Everyone wanted to work in that kitchen,” Richard D’Amico reminisced. “It just had a special buzz and that buzz carried over into the kitchen where everyone knew that they were a part of making something special.”

McKee agrees it was a uniquely influential time and place. “The environment inspired creative, passionate chefs,” he said. “Those chefs, in turn, continued to inspire like-minded chefs. It still goes on to this day.”

Mike DeCamp, Jim Christensen, Jack Riebel, Don Saunders, Erik Anderson, Jamie Malone, Jorge Guzman, Steven Brown, Isaac Becker and so many more – if there is a hot restaurant making waves in the Twin Cities today, there is a good chance its chef has a close connection to D’Amico Cucina.

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Lynne owns Social Visibility Consulting where she is a writer, content strategist and social media specialist working with businesses and consumer brands. She has a degree in journalism and more than 15 years of experience creating and sharing stories. Lynne is on an endless quest for restaurants around the world with unique takes on simple food.
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