Divine Comity

DiViNo offers polish and comeliness with a hint of familiarity

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Walking into the DiViNo Bar and Ristorante on Bay to Bay Boulevard reminds one of touring some of the nicest World Showcase areas at EPCOT Center. The main dining room is designed like an interior Italian courtyard with an extremely tall vaulted ceiling, faux balconies placed high on the stuccoed walls complete with wrought-iron railings, a variety of national flags, and a burbling fountain in the middle of the room. Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful environment to eat in, although we kept looking toward the second-story landing, expecting someone to come out and sing for us. Single roses decorated each table and the effect throughout was cozy and private.

DiViNo was renovated and restyled in 2003 as a slightly more casual version of Caffe Italia, its previous incarnation, but with a lot of the same players involved. A beautiful bar set away from the dining room and ample room for private parties make DiViNo a very versatile space. Its wine list fills two pages, perfectly sized for the ambience, with a fair selection of well-priced wines below $50. Just stay away from the non-Italian wines if you want to maximize the value of what you are getting. A very limited selection of wines by the glass — faceless varietal wines each at $5 — are well picked and most well worth the price, especially the tart dark cherry and spice of the Chianti and the uncharacteristically ripe and round Pinot Grigio.

Enjoying the fresh bread and the tomato, garlic, basil, oil and vinegar mixture provided for us as we sat down — think make-your-own bruschetta — we ordered Italian restaurant standards for our antipasti, as a benchmark for the rest of the meal. The ubiquitous Caprese Classica ($6.50) — a simple combination of mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil — suffered under the weight of nigh-tasteless underripe tomatoes, a frequent problem at Italian restaurants that feel obligated to keep caprese-style salads on their menu year-round. Balsamic vinegar sadly overpowered the otherwise excellent combination of thinly sliced rare beef, shaved parmesan, lemon juice, and peppery arugula of the Carpaccio Di Bue ($9.95), while a subtle wine-and-tomato broth highlighted mussels ($6.95) that were a bit more pungent and ripe than we like.

A simple salad of arugula, pine nuts and cherry tomatoes ($5.95) was so stacked with arugula that eating the salad felt like mowing the back forty. The lobster bisque special ($5.50) was what you would expect and nothing more, rich and lobstery but without much complexity or nuance. Throughout the evening we were enchanted by our Italian-accented server, who effortlessly combined efficient professional service with just a touch of relaxed familiarity.

The hit of the evening — Maiale Alla Carretiera ($14.95) — was a perfectly grilled cube of pork loin, wrapped in bacon that gave the very lean meat a welcome burst of smoky flavor, surrounded by an intensely rosemary infused demi-glace that worked extremely well with the pork. Accompanying this was a small plate with a tasty bit of gratiny potatoes and a single giant broccoli stalk that was more houseplant than side dish.

The other winner was the Capelacci Di Zucca ($13.95) — homemade spinach tortellini stuffed with sweet butternut squash — firm to the tooth as only fresh pasta can be and nicely accented by a subtle tomato cream sauce. The seafood risotto special ($15.95) was on the wrong side of al dente, chewy and raw tasting, without the starchy creaminess that makes the work-intensive cooking process worthwhile. Accompanied by well-seasoned shrimp, perfect clams, and the same pungent mussels as the aforementioned appetizer, this dish was largely disappointing.

Excellent coffee and espresso revived us for the desserts, starting with a large slice of chocolate mousse cake ($5). Although its rich chocolate flavor was a great balance between sweet and bitter, the cake layers were wet and spongy in texture, apparently soaked in an unidentified liquor. Light and airy, the ricotta cheesecake ($5) was rich without being heavy, subtly flavored with a bit of orange, and much better by itself than with the sweet strawberry topping.

There is always the danger when reviewing a restaurant to forget what it would be like to eat at the same place without deconstructing every part of the meal. DiViNo is a beautiful place, with acceptable food that hits highs and lows, and very good service. Almost more importantly, we had a great time eating there.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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