Tratoria Divina: Wining and Dining Done Right
Author: Frank Dunne, Jr. | Photographer: John Brackett
A scene from an Italian restaurant…
“Let’s take that one.” An out of the way, but not too out of the way, corner table in the wine room to the immediate right as you enter Trattoria Divina. It’s well-suited for our needs, giving enough privacy to converse without being overheard, but still able to take in the ambience that fills the rest of the space. Dominic greets us with complimentary sparkling Riondo Prosseco, “Just a little way to say Salute! An Italian tradition.”
“Thank you, Dominic. I’m Frank and this is my friend Kimberly.” Handshakes and salutations.
Though not a huge fan of bubblies, I’ll give you that Prosseco is a tasty, refreshing beginning. Turning to my dining companion, “Thank you for joining me…Salute!”
“Thanks for inviting me…Salute!”
A brief respite to enjoy the drinks and share some small talk, we can talk business later, then a welcome interruption, “Would you care for a cocktail before dinner?” inquires Dominic. We decline and move right to the wine selection. You’ll understand why shortly. Dominic presents a Nozzole Chianti Classico Riserva 2008. “Chef has selected this for you this evening. Tell me what you think.”
Chef has selected. This is good news. Mind you, probably due to my mostly Italian heritage, I rarely meet a Chianti Classico Riserva that I don’t like, so there’s little concern that Dominic would uncork the wrong bottle. Nevertheless I recall a little story to assure Kimberly that our wine selection is in good hands.
A few days earlier I’d had the opportunity to sit down with some of the folks who make this place go to get a little bit of backstory: Chef Hugo Lee, Karen Britton, and Harry Morales. Interestingly, Morales’ (a self-described “cork dork”) decision to join this team was born out of his experience as a customer. “I felt that this was a significant breath of fresh air for Hilton Head,” he said. A huge connoisseur of wine and food, the former Philadelphian is no stranger to Italian dining, so it’s worth a listen when Morales tells you why Lee and Trattoria Divina are the real deal.
“We dine out a lot and we’ve been to every premier restaurant on the island numerous times. I would do something that I call ‘challenge the chef’ in several of these restaurants.” That is, put the menu aside, have the chef taste a selected wine and challenge him to create something new to pair with it. “In his [Lee’s] case…the creativity just went off the charts! I think the culinary excellence, matched with a sincere humility for what he does…well, one thing led to another and they asked me to get involved.”
Dominic describes the fresh fig salads that will soon arrive after pouring the Nozzole: organic California figs sliced around baby arugula tossed in aged balsamic vinegar and finished with Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Finishing the salads, we’re talking about the stuff we planned to talk about, but I think we’re both more interested in thinking about food. I recalled my earlier conversation again.
“What is Trattoria Divina?” I challenged.
“It’s his baby,” said Britton nodding toward Lee. “He should tell you more.”
“We try to make it a friendly, family style place like a concept we used to have in California,” Lee said, referring to his 17 years of experience at La Jolla’s Trattoria Acqua. “It was very successful and we decided to bring it to this island.”
Probing into Lee’s time spent in California, I learned that he had also trained under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, both in Napa Valley. Good credentials for food and wine, but he’s being too humble, which I suppose tells you something about the young man, but…
“We make everything from scratch, and I buy as much as possible from local farmers markets, not from the big suppliers,” Lee said. “We love special requests and events,” Britton added. “The other night, we closed everything but one table in the wine room and filled it with balloons and flowers for a birthday dinner.”
Yes, that’s all very nice, but they’re not bragging enough, I thought.
“Accommodating,” proclaimed Lee. “We don’t mind split dishes and don’t charge for substitutions and things like that.”
“Do you like to be challenged the way Harry likes to challenge chefs?”
“Yes. Think of the menu as a guideline, not a rule.”
“He’s made stuff that I didn’t even know we had the ingredients for!” Britton said.
I remind my guest of this little exchange before the time came to order. “Stick to the menu or just order whatever’s on your mind.” She’s thinking veal.
“Would you like to order something from the antipasti menu?” Dominic inquired. We leave it to Chef to surprise us. “Perfect.”
Three distinct items on the plate: a succulent broiled jumbo prawn pressed with fresh herb and garlic butter and bread crumbs, served over a lobster risotto; a tempura lobster claw sitting atop a strawberry and avocado timbale; and a caramelized jumbo diver scallop served over beluga lentils. We were both quite impressed. Prawns, scallops and lobster claws; who hasn’t eaten plenty of them in their lifetime? But how many would ever think to order them prepared this way? Mind you, there are eight other items on the antipasti menu, all very tempting, but trust me, it’s more fun this way…and Kimberly highly endorses the timbale.
Ordering dinner will be a tough decision, but then again, maybe not. Thinking back about something else Morales had said in describing Lee’s skill in the kitchen: “When you have true Italian dining, you sort of have what you want, right? Yeah, we have a menu, but when you have a yearning for something…We had someone from Chicago who said, ‘you know in Chicago they made it this way,’ and, lo and behold, out it comes. He might have come from Mexico, but he’s as close to Italian as you can possibly get.”
So on the one hand, I’m very tempted to order something Italian, but I’ve had steak on the brain since my meeting with Lee, Britton and Morales. Amid all the talk of Italian food, he’d also spent time talking about Lee’s versatility. “Having him come around was a huge uptick for Hilton Head—somebody who’s classically trained in Italian, Mediterranean, French. And people have told us that his steaks are as good as you get at a steakhouse.”
Steaks. I haven’t had a great steak in a while, so despite the temptations to disregard the menu or order Italian, I’m going with the 12-ounce New York strip steak with forest mushrooms, pancetta, cipollini onions and whipped potatoes, served over a Gorgonzola cheese fondute. Kimberly stayed more on topic with an Italian dish and the veal that had been occupying her mind. Veal Involtini, cut like scallopini, pounded thin, rolled in fresh herb bread crumbs and stuffed with fresh buffalo mozzarella and asparagus, served with green peppercorn and brandy sauce and a side of fresh sautéed spinach.
“So, what do you think?”
“Mmmmm. You’ve gotta try this veal! Here, take some!”
“Try a bite of this steak, and make sure you get some of the fondute.”
“Thanks. Ohh, that’s so good!”
You get the picture. This is the part where we’re enjoying the meal immensely. Dominic and the rest of the staff balance attentiveness and our privacy very well throughout. We dine at our own pace and have some time to talk a little business before Dominic offers coffee and dessert. Kimberly inquires about her favorite, crème brûlée. “I have a hard time finding a good crème brûlée around here.” Sounds like we have a critic. Dominic assures her that she will be pleased, and she is.
“We have an ice sculpture prepared for you,” says Dominic. We look at each other.
It would best be described as three scoops of sorbet on a bed of mango chunks contained in a globe of ice about half the size of a volleyball. I’m not much of a dessert eater, so I don’t know if this is a common item in the dessert universe, but we’re both sure enjoying it…and it’s kind of fun poking the spoon through a hole in the ice to get at the good stuff.
Walking back to our cars, we offer our final assessments. “We should come back here,” said she.
THE END…but not really.
“With great food, one should have great wine,” Morales said. And the folks at Trattoria Divina think that applies to everyone, not just cork dorks, so they’re building their collection to suit all levels and tastes. “We have some very reasonable wines and some good moderate wines as well as very limited collectors’ bottles.” Try some of them. Trattoria Divina takes 30 percent off featured wines every Tuesday, or call the restaurant at (843) 686-4442 to inquire about special wine dinner events.
Trattoria Divina is located in Park Plaza at 33 Office Park Road, Suite 224 (Formerly The Brick Oven), Hilton Head Island. Call (843) 686-4442 or visit online at TrattoriaDivina.com