Trattoria Divina: A Remarkable Balance of Wine Yin to Culinary Yang
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Whitney Boring
It all began with a bottle of Brunello, said Tami Bream of their storia d’amore con il vino (love affair with wine), that she and husband Harry Morales share with guests at their sublime Italian restaurant, Trattoria Divina, located on Hilton Head Island. The prized Brunello di Montalcino is a quintessential Italian red wine, produced just south of Florence, where its literal roots date to the thirteenth century. “A friend was getting married in Italy. We were their witnesses. It just so happened that the first night we had this wonderful Brunello, and from then on, it was, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool.’”
Like the wine-yin to Chef Hugo Lee’s culinary-yang, the dining experience at Trattoria Divina creates a blissful state of balance, where the wine complements the cuisine, and the cuisine thoughtfully exalts the wine. “We look at ourselves as the guardians of Hugo’s house,” said Bream of Lee, whose references include Thomas Keller [The French Laundry], Il Fornaio and Trattoria Acqua [both of La Jolla, California], and the Culinary Institute of America—Greystone. “He is the creative talent and we are the guardians.”
It was two years ago when Mexican-born chef, Lee took his already burgeoning Italian cookery talents to the cuisine’s motherland. “After working for Thomas Keller, Chef [Lee] went to work for Chef [Gianpaolo] Putzu at Il Fornaio,” Bream said. “He worked for that chef for 10 years making his pastas. We knew it was time to send him to Italy.” Upon his return, Lee had clearly been infused with all things Italiano. “You could see the transformation in him; from the minute he got there until the time he left, his persona became Italian. The light was really ignited. When you eat here, you are experiencing true Italy.”
Trattoria Divina Staff:(listed from left to right, top to bottom)
Dominic Delsandro,Paige Rutherford,Chef Hugo Lee,Andres Campbell, and Lina Murashkina
Specializing in seafood, steaks, and house-made pasta and raviolis, Trattoria Divina’s menu is Lee’s nod to creative Italian family fare, lifted to heavenly dimensions. The ingredients create the story: lamb, filet, veal, lobster, chicken, pork, Italian bacon, black truffles, gorgonzola, parmigiana, pecorino, eggplant, tomatoes… to name just a tantalizing few. Leading the restaurant’s kitchen since 2011, where does he get his inspiration? “He reads and he talks to people,” Bream said. “He’s open to hearing what everyone has to say about food and the menu.”
Known for their exceptional service and attention to the needs of their guests, Lee meets with the Trattoria Divina wait staff every evening before service. He appreciates that they are having the conversations with guests; they are sharing information about the food and wine; they are hearing what the diners are saying. “Chef takes 20 to 30 minutes and talks to our servers every day,” Bream said. “He talks about the fish of the day and some of our specials. If there’s a new dish, he’ll make it so everyone can see what it looks like, and they’ll taste it. He really wants input from the service staff. Does it need more flavor? Is it too spicy? Does it look alright? He really, really does listen to the feedback of the staff.”
Baked Ziti tossed with home made béchamel, prosciutto cotto and fresh Spring peas.
The Trattoria Divina menu changes two or three times a year, depending on the season and the available ingredients, Bream said. “With the new spring menu, Chef is really going back toward traditional Italian—really traditional Italian with a Mediterranean influence—a lot of garlic and olive oil.” Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free selections are always on the menu. “We do a gluten-free pasta every night; that’s always an option.”
Like a big family where an open-armed welcome greets guests, Bream, Morales, and Lee have created an atmosphere where everyone is famiglia. “We have a team here who have primarily been with us since we took over,” Bream said. “That speaks volumes for the kind of atmosphere we’re trying to create here.” Seats at their varied wine tasting events have become sought-after reservations. “They’ve become great friend-raisers.”
Lee creates a menu that pairs with the wines selected for the evening. Guests are often seated family-style in Trattoria Divina’s conversation-friendly, fresco and fabric-covered spaces, where they truly feel like they are sitting down to the family table, set under an arbor of grapevines and olive trees in the Tuscan countryside.
Primo Martedì is Trattoria Davina’s wine tasting on the first Tuesday of every month. Literally translated “first Tuesday,” the events provide an opportunity for Bream and Morales to share their passion for finding new palette-pleasing varietals. “We usually pick five wines—typically, two whites, then we pair two reds in the middle, and then a big red at the end,” Bream said. “Then Chef does a pairing for the two whites, then a pairing for the two reds, and a pairing for the end.It gives the chef a great opportunity to create new things. Primo Martedì is also part of the education for our servers, because we don’t taste from our wine list on these evenings. We do new things every month. If we have a really good response to something, it ends up on the list.”
Their love of wine may have been sealed in Italy over a bottle of Brunello, however, today Tami Bream and Harry Morales’s taste in wine skews more toward a MARS vs. VENUS approach: He likes deep, earthy Italian reds; she is all over the place in her tastes, which provides Lee with many reference points for his culinary inspiration, and offers guests a deeply delectable wining and dining experience. “We’re not sommeliers; we’re not aficionados,” Bream said. “We just say we’re kind of dorky about what we like and what we don’t like. We aspire to the name ‘Cork Dork.’ We’re a great balance.” Wow, this is kind of cool.
For more information or to make reservations, please call (843) 686-4442 or visit trattoriadivinia.com. Trattoria Divina is located at 33 Office Park Road, Hilton Head Island. Tip: GPS will not accurately direct you to Trattoria Divina. Look for them in Park Plaza Shopping Center between Harris Teeter and Park Plaza Cinema.