April 2014

Experience Trattoria Divina: Where the Locals Go for Italian

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: Whitney Boring

Looking for the best restaurants in town? Pass by the waving clown and the crab on the billboard; search instead for the hidden jewels. You see, Hilton Head Island’s finest dining establishments are tucked away in the quiet corners of our world, no gaudy signs or sales gimmicks required. The best need only endear themselves to the locals.

Cozied into the back corner of Park Plaza, between the Harris Teeter grocery store and the Park Plaza Cinemas, Trattoria Divina is where islanders and visitors in the know go for Italian.

I could describe the exquisite hand-painted murals on the walls, the stunning painted glass-top bar, the rustic stone archways, the fabric-draped ceiling, the rich colors and the ambient lighting. I could mention that you will be greeted with a complimentary glass of Prosecco and amuse-bouche (“mouth amuser”—a gift from the chef). I could tell you about the wine room with over 400 bottles or rave about the friendly and efficient staff. But let me entice you with the food.

Trattoria Divina’s fresh innovative menu brings the taste of the northern coast of Italy across the Atlantic and through the ages here to the Lowcountry. Chef Hugo Lee spends his days scouring local farmers markets for the freshest organic produce to complement his specialty pastas made daily in house.

Lee draws his inspiration from life growing up in Mexico City, his formal training at the Culinary Institute of Napa at Greystone and under Thomas Keller at French Laundry, and especially from his heart! Food has always been a passion for Lee and he brings his expertise from Il Fornaio and Trattoria Acqua in California to Trattoria Divina Hilton Head.

According to owner, Harry Morales, he wouldn’t be in the restaurant business with any other chef. That’s because Lee is not only accomplished, but creative, passionate and humble. “There are executive chefs, and there are culinary artists. Hugo Lee is the best of both,” Morales said. “To dine at Trattoria Divina is to share in his passion and experiences.”

A feast of flavors
The meal begins with house-baked ciabatta, served warm with butter and house-made hummus to tease your taste buds. Enjoy, but don’t get carried away, because you’ll want to save room for the rest.

An assortment of starters and fresh, creative salads will tempt you next: rich, creamy lobster bisque topped with puff pastry, jumbo scallops finished with truffle Parmigianino sauce, warm stacked blue crab salad, crisp calamari or thinly sliced filet mignon topped with gorgonzola cheese and Dijon mustard aioli are a few ways to excite your palate before bringing on the main course.

Next, consider the variety of pastas, made fresh daily, dressed up in flavorful sauces, too numerous and diverse to mention. (Half portions are available if you can’t decide.) Seafood lovers rejoice in the broad selection of fresh fish and shellfish, procured locally or flown in from various areas around the globe to maintain Lee’s standards. Meat eaters revel in a choice of steaks, veal or chicken. Vegan or gluten free? No problem! Lee takes pride in accommodating every special need or request.

For Lee, a menu is just a formality, but creating experiences for each guest with his dishes is a state of mind. He invites you to think out of the box with an Osso Bucco dish served over homemade linguini and Gremolata sauce. In place of the typical Fettuccini Alfredo, Lee offers his signature Cappasante alla Divina made with fresh, homemade tomato pasta, organic corn, local shrimp, huge scallops and a spicy lobster cream sauce. Of course, he delights in creating and presenting nightly specials, playing up what’s fresh and fresh on his mind.

Whatever you do, don’t miss dessert. All are made in house with the exception of the gelato, made locally by Pino Gelato. Perhaps most famous and most photographed is Lee’s ice sculpture, like a miniature igloo filled with assorted sorbet and fresh fruit. Other house specialties include tiramisu, crème brûlée, molten chocolate cake and the chef’s newest concoction: bananas foster cheesecake—to die for!

Fine dining redefined
With its lush décor, impassioned chef, innovative menu and extensive wine selection, Trattoria Divina certainly meets the criteria of a distinctive fine-dining experience. But to some people, the term “fine-dining” sounds a bit off-putting.

To me, “fine” is not a formula, but a feeling, and of all the awards in the world, the most coveted is the endorsement of a repeat customer. As a 33-year resident of Hilton Head Island, based on my personal dining experience at Trattoria Divina, here’s how I define fine:

Freshness: From crisp salads to pristine fish and shellfish, freshness sings out.
Flavor: Flavors are creatively blended and balanced to enhance the freshness of the dish and satisfy the most discriminating palate.
Flair: Colorful presentations and unique flavor combinations along with a relaxing atmosphere make for a modern dining experience in an Old World setting.
Friendliness: From the first hello to the final goodbye, service is gracious and attentive, never pretentious or obtrusive. Servers are knowledgeable and professional—happy to answer your questions, suggest wine pairings and accommodate special requests. At the same time, no one cares if you use the wrong fork or mispronounce the name of your entrée selection or Italian wine.

While the setting is somewhat formal, this is a place where you can relax and be yourself. Enjoy the elegant ambiance, complete with candlelight, elegant table linens and soft background music along with service fit for a king and queen. No tie or ball gown required!

“If Trattoria Divina is anything, it’s a labor of love. From the décor and the cuisine to the people who work here, it’s the same theme,” Morales said. “We invite you to come in and experience Italian our way.”

Trattoria Divina is located in the Park Plaza Shopping Center, 33 Office Park Rd., suite 224, on Hilton Head Island and is open at 5 p.m. Monday-Sunday. For more information or to make reservations, call (843) 686-4442. To view the menu and learn more, visit trattoriadivina.com.

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