Divina Trattoria’s first full day of opening on Wednesday April 13 went better than expected. About 120 people placed orders, double what the students behind the pop-up restaurant had anticipated.
Divina Trattoria, which serves fast and fresh Italian cuisine, is the flagship project of students in the Culinary Institute of Montana program at Flathead Valley Community College.
While the plan had been to continue service until 1:30 p.m., at 1 p.m. the staff at the pop-up restaurant were turning people away. Evan Steckler, a senior who is the restaurant’s kitchen manager, said the turnout on opening day could have set a record.
“After not being able to eat in restaurants for so long and people have been avoiding restaurants for the past two years, once they see we’re open to the public, they flock to us,” Steckler said. .
There will be plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks for people to make their way through the restaurant menu. As last week marked its opening, Divina Trattoria will continue to operate on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. until the end of April. The restaurant is in the Culinary Kitchen located in the basement of the FVCC Arts and Technology building.
Students designed a menu, worked in the workshop on a mission statement, tested recipes, developed a marketing plan and reviewed cost and benefit proposals. After the restaurant closes, the students will present to a panel of local business owners and investors and discuss the profitability or losses incurred by the business. Chef Manda Hudak, program director at the FVCC Culinary Institute of Montana, said Divina Trattoria emerged after students in a global cooking class were drawn to ideas from the slow food movement, which she says was born in Italy.
The restaurant’s name is a nod to a Tuscan culinary concept of harmony and restraint in food, according to Hudak. “The food in this southern part of the country, and in fact all over Italy, is really fresh. It’s like garden to table,” Hudak said. “They really liked this harmony and restraint because the food is not necessarily complicated, but incredibly delicious.”
“We shoot for less than five minutes. So by the time you order, within five minutes you should have your food hot and in your hands. You sit in a Taco Bell drive-thru longer than you do handmade Italian food here,” Steckler said.. “We’re cheaper and faster than fast food with better ingredients and classically trained chefs cooking your food.”
The restaurant offers dine-in service in the kitchen, but Steckler said it’s also aiming to accommodate take-out orders. The popularity of takeout is something that has been learned from the changes in the industry that the pandemic has brought about. Last year’s pop-up restaurant was built around the concept of the smorrebrod, which is a Scandinavian style of open sandwich. The students chose the idea in part because they needed to build a restaurant built entirely around a take-out service.
One thing diners can look forward to at Divina Trattoria is freshly made pasta and handmade bread. Pasta is made in batches of 60 to 70 pounds at a time to meet demand. Steckler named the pesto lasagna as one of the highlights of the menu. The pasta originally didn’t go well in testing, but after making some adjustments, Steckler gave it his thumbs up.
“Our pesto lasagna is definitely a different take on lasagna,” he said. “Most people think it will be very heavy, meat-based, but we have pesto, pine nuts, arugula and green beans. It’s definitely a different take and it’s going really well.
Pesto lasagna sells for $9. And while the menu is geared more towards lighter fare meant to escape the post-lunch food coma, there are heartier offerings, including $12.50 pasta bolognese made with tomato meat sauce. stews, ground beef and pork. The menu also includes a ground beef and pork meatball sub and served on a homemade ciarolla roll with fresh basil pesto and melted provolone for $12.50.
Steckler also mentioned the restaurant’s panzanella quinoa salad, which he says is a twist on a traditional warm Italian bread salad. The salad comes with house-cured bread, steamed tricolor quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, capers, and an Italian red wine and herb vinaigrette. A parallel order costs $4 and a full order costs $7.
Hudak said desserts are a highlight of the menu for her. She noted the baba al limoncello, which is a twist on a rum-soaked cake. In this case, the Neapolitan cake is made with limoncello syrup and lemon pastry cream. She also highlighted panna cotta, a cooked cream dish served with layers of blood orange and coffee flavored cream. The dessert menu also includes an olive oil cake made with a compote of fresh strawberries, an almond streusel and a sweet mascarpone cream.
“It’s delicious, and I’m not even a dessert lover,” Hudak said.
Hudak also mentioned soups, including minestrone and a lemon chicken pepe soup with lemony chicken broth, zucchini, cannellini and fresh dill.
“People are freaking out about it,” she said. “I think everything is fine.”
It is not uncommon for Culinary Institute of Montana students to work in the cooking or restaurant industry while pursuing their education. For his part, Steckler said he works at Abruzzo Italian Kitchen in Whitefish.
What students do after graduation is up to them, but Hudak said she believes the culinary program has an entrepreneurial bent in that it teaches students not just culinary methods and skills, but also requires that they learn the business side of the restaurant industry. .
“A lot of people in Montana are interested in entrepreneurship,” Hudak said. “They want to open a food truck, they want to open a bakery, so we’re giving them what it takes to do that as well.”