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Haute confort: Young chef de cuisine and bartender build unforgettable experiences together in Midlands dining

Resting in a venerable two-story brick building in the heart of the Vista at 803 Gervais Street, Ristorante Divino possesses a mondaine yet homey charm that is reinforced through the inviting smiles and intimate conversations offered by its staff, the intelligently crafted cocktails, and, most noticeably, the satisfyingly ambrosial cuisine.  It is exemplary of the graceful friendliness evoked by good Southern restaurants, while still maintaining the refined culture of a northern Italian dining environment.

Established by Fulvio Valsecchi, the talented culinary team behind Ristorante Divino has made the restaurant a mainstay of fine dining in the Vista for more than sixteen years.  Presently, the restaurant is owned and operated by Chef Henry Griffin, Chef Bertrand Gilli, and Chef Mike Deevey.  The present owners still pay homage to the spot’s founder with the Lamb Valsecchi, an exquisite oven-roasted lamb rack encrusted with a house-made blend of herbs.  However, the young faces who now the customer experience of Ristorante Divino make it a truly memorable setting.

Jessica Williams, head bartender at Ristorante Divino (photo by Allison Willingham)

Jessica Williams, head bartender at Ristorante Divino (photo by Allison Willingham)

The servers are extensively trained in flavor profiling, particularly with wine and food pairings.  For example, the staff frequently blind-tastes wines to identify their age and origin.  “You have to understand the flavor profiles of not only the wines, but also the foods, and understand what complements each other. You create a experience for the customer and show them different and new ways to enjoy their food,” says Jessica Williams, the restaurant’s head bartender.

Leading the way for a flavorful local dining experience is the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, 25-year old Clayton Ludwigson, who has worked for the restaurant for two years.  Chef Ludwigson describes his menu as “forward-thinking Italian.  We do rustic in a new way.” According to Ludwigson, there is no secret ingredient at Ristorante Divino—it is a team effort to explore taste and constantly improve the dining adventure.  “Some chefs will find a new thing they’re not strong in and stay away from it.  I practice and practice until I master it.  It’s the only way we can progress.”

That progression is more than evident in the available eats, such as a Mediterranean-inspired pork chop served with a potato, sweet potato, and carrot gratin, a dish that epitomizes the taste of umami.  Topped with bacon-braised kale and tasso-brined gorgonzola cheese, the pork chop is carefully prepared, leaving it unusually tender to the taste, lacking in the dryness and heavy breading that is typically characteristic of pork.  This selection is a thrilling mix of tastes, combining the very basics of Southern cuisine with a green earthiness, the heartiness of the meats, and the savory mix of both heat and sweet in a spicy apple chutney topping.  Delectable, pungent food like this is why Ristorante Divino offers haute confort—comfort food in its most elegant form.

What is also noteworthy about the pork special is its utilization of locally grown vegetables, including the side of grilled mushrooms that were grown in Greenville by a team of husband and wife farmers.  “We have a plethora of phenomenal small places that we get our ingredients from,” says Ludwigson.  “We’re really proud of what we can offer.”

Indeed, the chefs of Ristorante Divino rely heavily on South Carolina farmers for ingredients, and they delicately hand-make many of their own menu items, most notably the gnocchi.  The gnocchi is indescribably soft, offering the sensation of biting into a luxurious pillow, and it served with a savory, pungent gorgonzola sauce made in-house.

Clayton Ludwigson, chef de cuisine at Ristorante Divino (photo by Allison Willingham)

Clayton Ludwigson, chef de cuisine at Ristorante Divino (photo by Allison Willingham)

At the bar, Williams complements Ludwigson’s dishes with a mixology that’s a take on haute confort, creating an atmosphere that is truly unique in fine dining.  Wearing a warm-hearted, genuine smile, Williams serves as a sort of tour guide for her customers, building intimate conversations and passionately giving recommendations.  There is nothing pretentious about the service at Ristorante Divino—the engaging, personable staff makes each guest feel like they are having dinner at an old friend’s house upon every visit.

Williams calls the restaurant her Valentine, since her first day was on Valentine’s Day 2015.  She is an enthusiastic encyclopedia of information about wine, liquor, and food, and takes pride in systematically building cocktails that will both complement the food and the mood of her customers.  She learns each customer’s taste preferences well before helping them select a wine to pair with their food.  “You’ve got to let the wine dance with the food, but not lead,” she explains.

However, 24-year old Williams knows her gender and her age will impact first impressions.  “Craft bartending is a male-dominated profession,” she says.  “I’ve had people come in and ask if I know how to make a martini far more times than I think a male bartender would.”

Relying on her knowledge of wine, mixology, and flavor profiling, Williams offers a uniquely inviting environment for the customer, full of laughter, wine tastings, and savory recommendations.  “In speed bars, a lot of females are hired because they’re hot…they’re encouraged to flirt with the customers.  That’s not what I’m here to do.  I work hard to build a good experience for everyone who comes in,” says Williams.

It is this mindset that makes the young staff of Ristorante Divino so impressive.  Ludwigson explains, “The people who work here really care not only about what they do, but how they do it.”

Ludwigson himself says he cannot imagine any other career being as satisfying as being the chef de cuisine.  “When people come in here to eat, the food will make or break their night. I love the joy of making something that will make them happy,” he says.  “I love to see our customers just super happy and say, ‘Oh, wow,’ when they bite into their food.  When they leave here, the food, the drinks, the experience is just all they can talk about, and I love that.”

Allison Willingham, Midlands Anchor’s Lifestyle & Entertainment Columnist, is also an instructor and criminology doctorate student at the University of South Carolina. She is actively involved in the Midlands community and current serves as the President Elect of the Board of Directors AIDS Benefit Foundation of SC. In her spare time, she writes a self-titled relationships and lifestyle blog.


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