A taste of Italy

When Americans travel to Italy, they have an epiphany. The food in restaurants there has nothing to do with the Italian American food back home. The new Divina Modern Italian restaurant in downtown Stamford is bringing on next-level Italian food. This ancient cuisine, with its traditional regional influences, has continued to evolve, reflecting different people, cultures and ingredients. Divina’s owners hail from Rome, Naples and Calabria, and the menu is fresh, exciting and welcoming.

At Divina “modern Italian” means visually arresting, vegetable-forward dishes like meltingly soft baby eggplant, topped with a punchy romesco sauce sprinkled with pine nuts and topped with grilled sweet and spicy peppers. Deeply satisfying to meat eaters as well as to vegetarians, it’s among many terrific dishes for sharing. Rome is known for its tempting fried snacks. Divina’s chef transforms Roman deep-fried vegetables into Misto, tempura of seasonal vegetables with mascarpone spiced with Calabrian chile.

St. Louis ribs, smokey-sweet double rib topped with purple slaw

Tuna crudo hit every note. Cool, clean tuna, fresh chiffonade of basil, umami of soy and sesame, citrus from lime and yuzu, a hit of heat from minced blistered jalapeño, and a final crunch of crescents of crisp pickled cucumber. Food heaven in a bite. Chef JQ is not afraid of heat and flavor, and on the night we dined, a regular guest at a well-spaced outdoor table, told us the tuna crudo is her favorite. (She also loves the veggie ceviche.) We continued the seafood theme with grilled octopus served with ribbons of fennel slaw, segments of grapefruit and orange, and the lovely touch of grilled lemon, which we squeezed over the tender octopus tentacles. Also great for sharing are artisanal boards of local and imported cheeses and sausages, including porchetta, herb-filled, rolled, roasted pork.

St. Louis ribs? Why not? Divina’s chef prepares a succulent double rib in smoky chipotle barbecue sauce, topped with purple cabbage slaw, whose fresh crunch and acidity counters the rich meat and sweet-tangy sauce. Once again, it was a visually stunning dish. The chef has an artistic eye. (Pro tip: Bring an order of ribs home to a loved one. My husband devoured them. “This guy knows how to make ribs,” he said.)

Housemade pastas come in small and full servings, and include a light, gluten-free ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Lobster ravioli, made with traditional flour, is topped with fun, crunchy tempura squash blossoms. Next time we’re going to try the fettuccine with prawns, fresh mint and ’nduja, the spicy spreadable sausage from Calabria.

Pizza is Neapolitan-style, thin, with spots of blistered crust. The Verde is spread with arugula pesto and topped with cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms and mozzarella. Market is a sweet-salty combo of prosciutto, figs and Gorgonzola Dolce drizzled with truffle oil sweetened with honey. Divina’s chef fires up a traditional tomato sauce (organic) and mozzarella pizza. There’s a spicy version with ’nduja and long hot peppers, and a gluten-free option.

The Plates section of the menu offers hearty servings of classics like braised short ribs and polenta, and grilled branzino, Mediterranean sea bass, in lemon caperberry sauce. The rib eye steak is 15 to 18 ounces, served with red wine sauce, broccoli rabe and crisp Parmigiano potatoes.

top row: Housemade pastas change seasonally and include gluten-free ravioli; Divina’s chic modern bar, contemporary cocktails tempt and the owners are proud of the wine list. bottom row: The wine room; Char-Grilled Branzino, lemon caperberry sauce, grilled asparagus, parmigiano potatoes; and the main dining room.

What’s this? The Italian-American classic, chicken parmigiana, is on Divina’s menu? Yes, and it’s made the way co-owner Enzo calls “the right way”—á la minute, rather than breaded and fried, sauced and reheated. This creates a crisp coating on the cutlet, which is served with organic tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and housemade pasta. Fresh herbs, a staple of Italian cooking, add their perfume to every dish.

The dining room, in the Marriott, has been redesigned to open to the street, making it more approachable. The casually sophisticated room has a clean, uncluttered palette of white, brown and blue. High-backed tan leather banquettes create cozy spaces for wood tables. A long white bar has a subtle serpentine curve that calls out for better days ahead. Divina has a private event room, and an attractive wine room.

The owners are proud of their wine list, which has many boutique wines for those looking to learn more about regional Italian wines. This is an Italian restaurant after all, and ordering a bottle is part of the experience. You can find customer friendly bottles, priced to sell, as well as Divina’s “cult picks” for high rollers. Cocktails are large, contemporary mixologist affairs. I enjoyed an evocative Aperol spritz.

Desserts include coconut lemon cheesecake, hazelnut tiramisu and gelato. Divina also serves breakfast and a late-night menu.

Pro tip: There’s public parking at the end of Summer Street, a short walk from the restaurant. The Marriot valet parking is convenient but expensive ($14 for two hours, sans tip), and they don’t let the restaurant validate.

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