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Divino: A Touch of Tuscany

by Nick Anis, Travel Watch Senior Editor

Divino (English translation: divine) is a Tuscany-style Italian restaurant-café with a Mediterranean touch, located in Brentwood just off Sunset Boulevard, tucked away in an area speckled with restaurants known as Brentwood Village. The J. Paul Getty Museum is visible from your table only a short distance away, on a hillside just north of the restaurant.

(Note: Click on photos in story to see enlargements.)

Divino Main Dining Area The two story restaurant has an open kitchen with a brass hooded wood burning stone pizza oven. Such an oven is essential to the art of making great Italian pizzas because of the high, even temperatures they can maintain even with the door open.

The main dining room is not large, but the vaulted ceiling and lighted skylight, make it airy and pleasant. For a more cozy feeling you can go to a table on the small balcony that overlooks the main room.

Goron Milik Waiting Tables - Click to Enlarge Aloft, it is quieter and more private, and you have a bird’s eye view of the open kitchen below as the pizzaiolo or pizza chefs deftly ply their spirited culinary art.

The décor has a simple but elegant and unmistakably European tone. Light brown, ceramic tile floor and light blue lime plaster walls nicely complement the natural finish of sturdy but comfortable hardwood tables and chairs. It is a very traditional tone accented nicely with track lighting, a dash of live plants, and oak and brass wine racks.

Adjacent to the front entrance is a patio dining area. The patio is separated from the interior of the restaurant by attractive French doors, also trimmed with natural wood. There is a large hand-carved wooden branzino (Mediterranean whitefish) on the west wall; it is a striking piece of art, and also the Divino logo. Wooden Branzino (Mediterranean Whitefish)

The Milic Brothers

Divino is operated by the youthful Milic brothers who immigrated to the US from Herceg-Novi (English translation: New Castle), a Yugoslavian resort town on the Adriatic coast now in the Republic of Montenegro. Brothers Davor and Goran Castle-Nuovo (Italian translation) is only 10 hours by boat from the southern Italy village of Bari [map] and so has a strong Italian influence. Davor Milic, 30, acts as head chef while his older brother Goran, 36, who also does some cooking, acts primarily as maitre d’ and general manager.

On the East wall at eye level are 11 quite arresting black and white photos. Ten are of immigrants waiting for a boat to take to America. In the center, however, is a photo of Goran and Davor as children back in Herceg-Novi. Because Goran is 6 years older he’s a full foot taller than his brother in the picture, but they both are just tall, skinny kids.

Goran Melic Goran told me: "In the 10 years since we came here, all our dreams have came true."

The Milic brothers worked 2 and 3 jobs at a time for almost 10 years in order to raise the capital to open Divino. They laid the brown ceramic tiles themselves and did all the decorating as well. They both now work 7 days a week in their restaurant. Their day typically starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends after midnight – though they do take some time off during the mornings and afternoons. The restaurateur’s life it not always easy.

Both, however, are genuinely happy to be there. They love their work and they love their restaurant. His voice cracking with emotion, Goran told me his dream is for his children to have the traditional second and third generation experience in America: "You know – the first generation comes and gets established… in order for things to be better for the second and the third."

Divino seats about 60 people. The atmosphere is relaxed – maybe too relaxed for some tastes – the main dining area can get quite noisy, but the upstairs and patio areas are quieter for those who are not thrilled by the noise and clatter of a traditional European café. There is a casual, festive atmosphere. The tables are set close together, but that is what one might expect in a smaller restaurant with quite moderate prices.

What’s amazing is to watch the young, healthy and enthusiastic staff at work. They look like the cast of a European version of the "Friends" TV show – slim, charming and sophisticated. Divino Staff - Click to Enlarge Kitchen Crew It’s an impressive team effort, and it is not accidental. Goran told me the antique 1902 Yale scull boat (a long wooden competition boat) that hangs above the east wall photos symbolizes that just as team work propels the scull it also propels Divino. 1902 Yale Scull Boat

Having seen the place operate so smoothly I would have to agree.

The staff is so graceful and nimble that during the two hours I was there not once did I see them bump into anyone or anything. It was like watching a dynamic dance in which the troupe uses laden trays as props. As one server brought me a meal of incredible veal, another simultaneously and independently brought me a carving knife. The serving at Divino is an absolute model of grace and coordination.

Regulars Tell the Tale

You can tell much about a restaurant from its "regulars." Divino has quite a few, attracted by the high quality of the food and by prices that would be low not just in Brentwood but just about anywhere else as well. I recognized one young man who is on a first-name basis with the Milic brothers as a waiter at a very well known and upscale restaurant in Beverly Hills, a place I had reviewed recently. This young fellow who looks a bit like Billy Crystal is a fountain of knowledge about food and wine. He was there with a date, but I went up to say hello anyway. He told me he eats at Divino quite often and recommends it to his friends because of its good food and value. I consider this high praise from a knowledgeable source. Ironically, I'm told the "real" Billy Crystal is also a regular at Divino's.

We also chatted with other non celeb regulars, Carolyn and Mitchell Ryan, there with their daughter, Camille, who was celebrating her sixth birthday. Mitchell said his family comes to Divino once or twice a week. Carolyn’s favorite dish is the pasta with crab sauce. Mitchell was having Hawaiian jumbo shrimp, piled so high and of such generous size I nearly mistook it for a herd of lobsters. Mitchell praised Divino’s sauces as "never too heavy, " a claim I personally verified when my plate of spaghetti arrived. It did not have the heavy-handed, over-flavored and overcooked taste I associate with many "popular" (meaning not overpriced) Italian restaurants. Carolyn and Mitchell also pointed out the good choice of Italian and Californian wines that Divino also sells by the glass – a pleasant convenience for light dining or for small parties who only want a glass or two of wine with their meal.

We sampled three of Divino’s more popular wines, the St Francis Merlot 1994 Sonoma County California $24.00:
  • 100% Unblended and aged in French and American oak; 
  • Bottled  unfined and unfiltered; 
  • Classic dark ruby color, currant and ripe cherry fruit scents; 
  • Richness across the palate, and well-balanced.

And two dry Chiantis, Nozzole Riserva 1991 Greve, Italy, $23; and Peppoli 1994, Antinori, Italy, $24.

Divino Wines I am basically a French-California burgundy person but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the St. Francis to be the best of the three.

The Peppoli had more body than the Nozzole.

The wine list has an assortment of 12 Blancos (whites) and 18 Rossos (reds) ranging from $14 to $32 a bottle with $24 being about average. Glasses of wine range from $4 to $5.50.

If you want to bring your own wine, corkage is $10 per bottle.

The menu offers about two dozen appetizers and entrées. I ordered a side serving of spaghetti that arrived with exactly the taste and texture of the spaghetti my Italian immigrant grandmother from Tuscany made when I was a child, back in New York City in the 1960’s. It was delicious – fresh cooked to just the right degree and served with a superb Mariana sauce that could never have come from a can or jar. My side of spaghetti portion was most generous, but looked deceptively small in Divino's oversized plates. Some of Divino’s pasta entrée portion sizes, however, are "European" (that is, smaller than you might be accustomed to getting). On balance, however, I found the portion sizes for veal, shrimp and other entrées to be larger than average.

Quick, polished and graceful service

The smile from my server, Barbara, who comes from Torino, Italy, made me feel right at home. She did a great job of telling us the specials, but I got distracted just listening to her soft voice, light Italian accent, and watching her wholesome, friendly and courteous manner. Barbara from Torino, Italy At my request she repeated the specials to us – amazingly, with the same friendly enthusiasm as during the first recitation. She is a gem of a server who added much to our dining experience.

The Filone (traditional Italian bread) and Facaccia (pizza dough flat bread), are made daily in the wood burning stone pizza oven and served continuously with the traditional virgin olive oil instead of butter. The intense heat in the traditional wood-burning stone oven – a consistent 550 degrees Fahrenheit or more – produces the light, delicate crust of Neapolitan pizza bread in just 4 minutes, the brothers told me. It was delicious. My companion had a spinach salad with goat cheese and fresh pine nuts, plus a delightful lemon dressing. I had the green salad and used the basaltic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil (in a cruet with a sprig of Rosemary and touch of garlic) already on the table, as dressing. Both salads were excellent. I am a salad person, and can honestly say I have never seen greens of such quality and variety at such a moderately price restaurant. Too bad they don’t deliver – I live only 50 miles away.

Divino serves six different 14-inch Neapolitan style (round, thin, crispy crust) pizzas ranging in price from $7.50 to $9.50, plus an assortment of fresh pasta (from $8.50 to $12.25), meat ($12.50 and $14.50), and fish entrées $15.95). There are also three fish specials each night. A Divino Pizza Divino Pasta Divino Fish Entree
On this occasion I chose Veal, which turned out to be fantastic. It was superbly tender and delicious. The accompanying roasted red potatoes also were superb, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and seasoned perfectly. It was a most generous portion of very lean veal with not a trace of fat, and it was cooked just right. They served it fresh from the oven. I suspect they transported it to my table with a Starship Enterprise type of magical and instantaneous delivery system, it was that freshly cooked. Divino Veal Chop Divino’s veal is carefully marinated with a mixture of finely chopped Rosemary, sage and other Mediterranean herbs, with extra-virgin olive oil, and a heaping portion of world famous Porchini mushrooms. It is adeptly roasted in Divino’s wood burning stone oven – with meticulous turning and adjusting to prevent overheating and to ensure even cooking – a mission that was well accomplished. The veal is served with a side of cooked spinach or Swiss chard and diced Roma tomatoes.
My companion chose the chicken ravioli. We ended up sharing and I found the chicken ravioli to be among the best I have ever had. I can describe it in three words: delicious…delicious… delicious. Chicken Ravioli It was made with homemade pasta with chicken breast sautéed with celery, carrots, asparagus and extra virgin olive oil, all blended in perfect harmony to just the right consistency and used to fill the (made on the premises) ravioli pasta dough. Then the raviolis are dried, boiled, mixed with ripe tomato sauce and vegetables and served.
Now it was time for dessert and coffee. Barbara recited the dessert menu, which changes frequently. We were dining late, and while making up our minds we realized the desserts were going fast. I ordered the low fat, coconut sorbet, a delightful end-of-meal ice that was served on the half-shell – that is, in one-half of a real coconut shell. Biscoti I also ordered a cappuccino, which came brewed perfectly and served in an enormous white cup with an interesting pattern of a circle of blue sea shells and a frilled vine with yellow and read beads. Divino serves complimentary Biscoti (a tasty light pastry dusted with powered sugar) along with the tea and coffees.

My companion Jim, who I should mention was my photographer, doesn’t drink tea or coffee. To my surprise he ordered the cappuccino mousse. According to "drink no coffee Jim, " it was creamy and delicious, including the rich chocolate sauce on top. To Jim’s surprise and delight the flavors were enhanced, not overpowered by the coffee flavoring.

Divino is open daily for lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 and for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30. Reservations are recommended. There is some free and some metered parking, but it can be hard to find a space at peak times. Valet parking is also offered for $2.75. Dinner for two with wine is about $20 each. The service is quick, polished and graceful; the ambience is informal European, which has such disadvantages as noise as well as the advantage of simple, tasteful décor; the merely average presentation is more than balanced by the incredibly reasonable cost; and most important of all – the food is absolutely delicious!

Divino
11714 Barrington Court
Brentwood, CA  90049-2930
Phone: 310-472-0886
Fax: 310-472-0936
[Map]

Nick Anis is a computer and technology writer and the author of 24 books who also writes about travel, food & wine, entertainment, skiing and family recreation. He writes for Ziff-Davis, Microtimes, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Travel Watch, TravelGram, and Restaurant-Row. He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram. Nick is a member of the Computer Press Association, The International Food Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFW&TWA), and the North American Ski Journalists Assn. (NASJA).

Nick can be reached at NickAnis@travel-watch.com, Phone: 909-860-6914, Fax: 909-396-0014.

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