The first day of Divina Trattoria’s full opening on Wednesday, April 13 went better than expected. About 120 people placed orders, which is double what the college students behind the pop-up restaurant had anticipated.
Divina Trattoria, which serves fast, fresh Italian food, is the capstone project for students in Flathead Valley Community College’s Culinary Institute of Montana program.
While the plan had been to continue service until 1:30 p.m., by 1 p.m. staff at the pop-up restaurant were turning people away. Evan Steckler, a senior who is the kitchen manager for the restaurant, said that the opening day turnout might have set a record.
“After not being able to eat out for so long, and people avoiding restaurants for the last two years, once they see that 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 work their way through the menu at the restaurant. While last week marked its opening, Divina Trattoria will continue to operate Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. through the end of April. The restaurant can be found in the culinary kitchen located in the basement of FVCC’s arts and technology building.
Students designed a menu, workshopped a mission statement, tested recipes, worked up a marketing plan, and went through cost and profit propositions. After the restaurant closes students will present in front of a panel of local business owners and investors and discuss the profitability or losses the business incurred. Chef Manda Hudak, the program director at the FVCC Culinary Institute of Montana, said that Divina Trattoria emerged after students in a world cuisine class were drawn toward the ideas of the slow food movement, which she said 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 that particular southern part of the country, and actually all through Italy is really fresh. It’s like from the garden to the table,” Hudak said. “They really liked that harmony and restraint because the food is not necessarily complicated, but incredibly delicious.”
“We’re shooting for under five minute fire time. So by the time you order, within five minutes you should have your food hot and in your hands. You sit longer in a Taco Bell drive-thru than you do for handmade Italian food right here,” Steckler said. “We’re cheaper and quicker than fast food with better ingredients and classically trained chefs cooking your food.”
The restaurant does offer dine-in service at tables in the kitchen, but Steckler said they aim to also accommodate takeout orders. The popularity of takeout is something learned from the industry shifts the pandemic has caused. Last year’s pop-up restaurant was built around the concept of the smorrebrod, which is a style of Scandinavian open-faced sandwich. Students settled on the idea in part because they needed to build a restaurant that was completely built around grab-and-go service.
One thing that diners can look forward to at Divina Trattoria is freshly made pasta and handmade bread. The pasta is being made in batches of between 60 and 70 pounds at a time to keep up with demand. Steckler pointed toward the pesto lasagna as one particular highlight on the menu. The pasta didn’t originally turn out well during testing, but after making some adjustments, Steckler gave it his endorsement.
“Our pesto lasagna is definitely a different take on lasagna,” he said. “Most people think it’s gonna be really 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.”
The pesto lasagna sells for $9. And while the menu is geared more toward lighter fare meant to evade a post-lunch food coma, there are some more hearty offerings, including a $12.50 pasta Bolognese made with a meat sauce of simmered tomatoes, ground beef and pork. The menu also includes a meatball sub made of ground beef and pork meatballs and served on a house-made ciarolla roll with fresh basil pesto and melted provolone for $12.50.
Steckler also mentioned the restaurant’s quinoa panzanella salad, which he said is a take on a traditional warm Italian bread salad. The salad comes with dried, house-made bread, steamed tri-color quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, feta, capers and an Italian red wine herb vinaigrette. A side order is $4, and a full is $7.
Hudak said that for her the desserts are a highlight of the menu. She noted the baba al limoncello, which is a variation on a rum-soaked cake. In this case the Neapolitan style cake is made with limoncello syrup and lemon pastry cream. She also highlighted the panna cotta, a cooked cream dish served with layers of blood orange and coffee flavored cream. The dessert menu also includes olive oil cake made with fresh strawberry compote, almond streusel and sweet mascarpone cream.
“It’s delicious, and I’m not even a dessert person,” Hudak said.
Hudak also mentioned the soups, including minestrone and a lemon and chicken pepe soup with lemony chicken broth, zucchini, cannellini and fresh dill.
“People are freaking out on that,” she said. “I think it’s all good.”
It’s not uncommon for students in the Culinary Institute of Montana to work in the industry in kitchens or in catering while they continue their studies. 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 that she thinks the culinary program has an entrepreneurial bent in that it teaches students not only cooking methods and skills, but also requires that they learn about the business side of the food service industry.
“A lot of people in Montana are entrepreneurially interested,” Hudak said. “They want to open up a food truck, they want to open up a bakery, so we’re giving them what it takes to do that as well.”