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Conditional Amore

Divino: Think of it as a neighborhood Italian joint with major ambitions.
Deron Neblett

The bruschetta is a do-it-yourself project at divino. This version of the Italian-restaurant staple features slices of grilled bread, naked but for a drizzle of greenish olive oil, with three little bowls of savory spreads on a big white plate. The toppings are pureed white beans, tapenade and tomato chunks with chopped basil. We ordered the appetizer and a bottle of wine as soon as we sat down.

The wine list at divino changes weekly, which is a clever idea if you know anything about the fermented-grape business. Wine sellers are always getting stuck with odd cases and end-of-vintage closeouts. By altering the list every week, divino gets to take advantage of these deals. As a result, the restaurant offers some of the best bargains in the $20 to $30 range that I've seen in Houston. We pick a 1997 Barbera d'Alba from Gigi Rosso (see "Wine Notes"). As we try to figure out how to describe the aroma of this lovely red, we absentmindedly dip our bread in the bowls.

"This white bean paste doesn't work," my tablemate says. A few days earlier, we had eaten a similar white bean paste at another Italian restaurant, and she had raved about it. White bean pastes like these are popular in Tuscany, where they are used like butter on thick slices of bread. The one we had a few days ago was made with pureed garbanzo beans, seasoned with roasted garlic and mixed with olive oil.

Divino's menu brags that its puree is made from "Tuscan cannellini beans." It is creamy and bland, with little or no seasonings. The tapenade, which is supposed to contain anchovies and capers along with black olive paste, is very salty -- even though the anchovies and capers are scant. And the chopped tomatoes are, of course, a little acidic. We had been eating the toppings one at a time.

Then it dawns on me. I spread a piece of toast with some beans, put some tapenade on top of that, and then sprinkle it with tomatoes. The flavors come together beautifully when combined. It would have been nice if the waiter had clued us in on the concept. But he has other problems.

Such is dinner at divino. The food can be very good if you know the menu. And the ambience is enjoyable, if you go with the quirky flow. The Italian wine bar and restaurant is a hangout for affluent Montrose professionals. Just don't expect much from the staff, who are on another, more glamorous, planet.

"Are you ready to order your entrées?" asks the waiter.

I request the filet mignon, medium rare, and my dining partner opts for the spicy shrimp fettuccine. We drink some wine and finish our appetizer. Ten minutes go by. The waiter returns.

"Can I take your order now, or do you want to wait a few minutes," he says. We look at him in disbelief.

"We just ordered. I got the steak, medium rare. She got the shrimp pasta. Remember?..."

"Oh, yeah...," he says, standing beside our table and flipping through his tickets. Despite his harebrained mistake, he is still in no hurry.

"Um... Would you like to turn in our order now, or do you want to wait a few minutes?" I ask him with a fake smile. He gives me a look and floats away toward the kitchen in a nearly visible fog. Somebody removes our empty appetizer plate. Another five minutes pass.

Our waiter returns and delivers a familiar-looking plate of toasted bread surrounding three little bowls of toppings. This triggers one of those reverse déjà vu reactions, in which a repeated experience makes you question reality. "Is it Groundhog Day again?" my dining partner giggles.

"We already had this appetizer," I remind the waiter when he comes by a few minutes later.

"That's what I thought, but the kitchen insisted it was for you," he says. He scoops up the bruschetta and wanders away again. The people at the next table, who were seated after us, are almost through with their entrées.

Finally the meal arrives. The steak is thickly cut, juicy, tender and served in a velvety demiglace with brown mushrooms. Oiled spinach, quickly sautéed so each leaf stays distinct, is served on the side, along with a mound of whipped red potatoes. The red skins give the creamy mash some texture. It is the classic chophouse combo -- steak, spinach and potatoes -- not the most imaginative dinner in the world, but one of the most satisfying. I pour another glass of Barbera and savor each bite.

The fettuccine tossed with sautéed shrimp, white wine, red chiles and tomato would have been quite impressive if the crustaceans hadn't been tough. Whether they were overcooked or poorly frozen, I can't say. The slippery, wide fettuccine noodles were perfectly done, however, and the deceptively simple sauce was bold and spicy. We ate all the pasta and ignored the shrimp -- quite the opposite of the norm.


Divino's tiny combination bar and dining room is visually dominated by some unusual wine racks. A series of copper pipes runs the length of the bar, and the bottles are placed on them horizontally. The labels are clearly visible this way, and the colors form a nice montage. But the way the pipes are staggered also gives the display an odd sort of tension. It looks as if one wrong move could bring the whole lot crashing down onto the tile floor.

The cool gray color scheme with wooden furniture is very appealing. I especially admire the lighting. Track-light spots on the ceiling are focused on each tabletop so that your food shines theatrically. The lights were a bit too bright this time. But luckily there wasn't any music playing.

On my first visit to divino, a couple of weeks ago, the music was loud. There were only a couple of tables occupied at the time, and the electronic dance beat bouncing around the empty space got pretty annoying. One member of our party asked the waiter if the music could be turned down a little. The waiter graciously agreed, and the volume was reduced. That night we ordered the antipasto misto, Parma-style risotto, pork tenderloin medallions and Sicilian seared tuna.

Before the food was delivered, the music was blaring again -- at an even higher volume. The waiter shrugged when we asked him about it, and we were left to conjecture. Perhaps the building, which used to house Toopees Coffee Company & Catering (see "Dark Day at Toopees," by Margaret L. Briggs, October 14, 1999), is haunted by the spirits of Toopees' radical waitresses who once walked out in protest over new male ownership. Then again, maybe the new waitstaff just likes dance music -- a lot.

The antipasto was an artful array of thinly sliced meats, cheeses and olives. But instead of the usual accompaniment of Italian bread, it was served with grilled polenta. I like grilled polenta, but I found myself puzzling about how to eat it with sliced salami and cheese. I still don't know.

The risotto was perfectly cooked -- not too firm, not too mushy. The rice was mixed with prosciutto di Parma, mushrooms and green peas. The first bite was exciting, the second soothing, and the third boring. Divino's version of the classic Italian dish was long on the Arborio and short on flavorings. It rotated around the table but couldn't keep anybody's interest. Most of it went uneaten.

The pork medallions were served in a sauce of pistachios, shallots and cream with asparagus and rosemary roasted potatoes. It sounds a lot more intriguing than it tasted. The cream sauce was lackluster, and it didn't do much for the pork. "It tastes bland and fattening," the woman at the table remarked. It too went unfinished.

Which left all three of us fighting over the Sicilian seared tuna, which was rare in the middle and served on a bed of one of the best lemon risottos I've ever tasted. The fish and risotto alone would have been good, but they were accented with a tart and salty sauce of white wine, cherry tomatoes, black olives and capers. The dish was sensational, especially with the light Rhône red we were drinking. I fought for as much as I could get.

Next time I go to divino I'll skip the table service and sit at the wine bar with the locals. If you think of divino as a neighborhood joint with good food, rather than a fine-dining establishment, you won't be disappointed. The good dishes are stellar, and the wine list is amazing. Of course, the downside of a weekly wine list is that the bottle you fall in love with this time probably won't be there next time. Oh, well. You'll just have to fall in love all over again.

Wine Notes: 1997 Barbera d'Alba, limited bottling, Gigi Rosso, $29

This is a smooth, light red with rich black-cherry notes and real finesse, one of the best Barberas I've had in some time. Barbera is a fluky Piedmont varietal that tends to have an overly acidic taste when produced in the traditional method. But the Piedmont's new generation of winemakers is crafting Barberas that rank right up there with their expensive Barolos and Barbarescos. (Don't confuse the generic Barbera d'Asti for the much scarcer Barbera d'Alba.)

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miles
Divino

1830 W. Alabama
Houston, TX 77098

713-807-1123


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