It’s no secret that in past 10 years there has been a dramatic interest in the theater of food and the culinary arts in America. An article in the Christian Science Monitor referred to it as a sort of “Italian Renaissance in food … an intellectual elevation that is turned into something durable through media.” But is it really a Renaissance or is it that most Americans finally understand and appreciate what Europeans (and Southerners, like me) have known for years?
The understanding that food is not just for eating to satisfy hunger; that food is art, food is life, food is a conduit for social and family gatherings and memories. Think of how many memories you have that are tied to a recipe or food, or how your mood changes when you eat a specific food or dish. Vacations and getaways can (should!) present a practically perfect set of circumstances for indulging in the ‘lifestyle of food’, i.e. foodie heaven.
Hilton Head Island is seeing its own share of this foodie phenomenon and recently it has taken a literal turn toward a true Italian Renaissance. Red sauce is the new black, with several new restaurants and eateries opening specializing in Italian cuisine – from the Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma found in Emilia-Romagna and rich olive oil and wines of Tuscany to the Napolese pizza and fresh seafood preparations of the Mediterranean coast – there is a genuine abbondanza of Italian deliciousness to be enjoyed in the Island.
First up is the newest on the scene, La Fontana Waterfront Grille & Pizzeria, located in Shelter Cove Marina taking the exact spot of long-time Island restaurant, Little Venice. With an Italian-born chef (Gary Langevin) who originally hails from Naples, a talented culinary crew also from Naples and the business acumen of owner Robert Murray, La Fontana promises to satisfy any yearnings for a true Napoli dining experience during your vacation.
Specialties of the chef and house include several entrees where the gifts of the sea shine – try the Lobster Ravioli allo Scorlio with clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops bathed in a creamy lobster sauce. The extensive menu is brimming with favorites of the region like spaghetti alla Cozze and authentic pizza, from the orginal Margherita to Prosciutto & Arugul and Pizza Salamino bursting with spicy salami, fresh San Marzano tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella.
Hankering for an in-between meal snack? La Fontana is open every day continuously starting at 11 am so there’s no reason not to stop in for that post-beach pizza fix!
Competition for cool runs pretty hot in Hilton Head Island, but a personal favorite of mine, Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana, garners high marks for both it’s sophisticated atmosphere and perennially excellent menu. The lively bar area is a great spot to meet friends for an appetizer or indulge in a superb dessert and coffee drink. TIP: The formata di Cioccolata con Gelato Vanilla (warm, molten chocolate cake) is to die for!
Having dinner here is an ‘experience’ for the Italian food lover and if you are just so-so about Italian food, after a meal here you will be forever changed to both this cuisine AND forever spoiled by Chef Christopher Johnson’s creations. The Carpaccio di Manzo (thinly sliced raw Black Angus beef dressed with lemon, extra virgin olive oil, capers and shaved Parmigiano) is my favorite start to a meal here, followed by one of the homemade pastas like Gnocchi di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico or “Calamaretti” con Gamberi (with fresh shrimp, spinach, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil). The filet mignon of beef (served with a gorgonzola and Chianti reduction and wild mushroom garnish) is also a tempting favorite.
For trip planning purposes, it’s never too early to make a reservation here, especially if you are in need of a table on a weekend, or your group is large in number. This restaurant also serves some fantastic wines by flight and offers many fine selections in its Captain’s list – the knowledgeable sommelier here can direct you toward the perfect selection to compliment your meal. For those wishing to learn the techniques, recipes and nay I say ‘secrets’ of the beguiling food served here, check out the Michael Anthony’s Cooking School – offering both hands-on participation and demonstration classes.
No romance is not dead. It’s as lively as the colorful, hand painted murals (courtesy of talented students from the Savannah College of Art & Design) and charming patio found at Trattoria Divina. For foodies, just say the name ‘Thomas Keller’ and watch ears perk up, gleeful chatter begin and possibly a line to form. Relevant because you see the Trattoria Divina chef is Hugo Lee, formally trained at the Culinary Institute of Napa at Greystone and later under the renowned Thomas Keller at his celebrated Northern California restaurant, French Laundry.
Chef Lee brings full-on creativity and an artist’s passion to Trattoria Divina, experienced first in your amuse-bouche and complimentary glass of Prosecco. Then discovered in every mouthful of Chef Lee’s enticing fare – from antipasta, insalada and entrée dishes of the sea (pesca) and the land (pasta and carne).
Utilizing seasonal and locally grown ingredients, Chef Lee pairs traditional Northern Italian cuisine with innovative technique to offer delights like his Cappasante alla Divina made with fresh, homemade tomato pasta, organic corn, local shrimp, huge scallops and a spicy lobster cream sauce.
Trattoria Divina co-owner Harry Morales, continues to be amazed by Chef Lee’s unending creativity even with the most stereotypical dishes. “Take Chef Lee’s scampi for instance,” he says. “Most everyone has tried scampi – and I grew up on it. But have you ever tasted a crunchy scampi? Chef’s version is a magnificent combination of crunchy lightness –
Parmesan and breadcrumb encrusted shrimp served over a lobster risotto with fresh vegetables,” Morales states. Chef Lee is also one of the few chefs in the area trained in the sous-vide technique put to great use in dishes like his espresso rubbed beef tenderloin with Keoki coffee sauce and savory bread pudding.
Trattoria Divina also boasts a deep wine list with selections from around the world. The first Friday of every month the restaurant hosts an interactive wine dinner served family style and accompanied by wine tastings. Plus guests have the opportunity to purchase the wines served at cost. Call the restaurant for details; wine dinners are very popular so reservations are a must!
And, if none of these fine establishments fit your style or you’d just like more, more, more food Italian-style, check out these gems:
- IL Carpaccio (lunch & dinner, wood fired pizza), on the pond in Pineland Mall, Hilton Head Island
- La Fontana Waterfront Grille & Pizzeria, Shelter Cove Harbour
- Michael Anthony’s, 37 New Orleans Road, Hilton Head Island
- Mulberry Street Trattoria, (lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch), Bluffton
- OMBRA Cucina Rustica, (dinner, chef’s table), Village at Wexford, Hilton Head Island
- Pomodori Italian Eatery, 1 New Orleans Road, Hilton Head Island
- Stellini Italian Restaurant, 15 Executive Park Drive off Pope Avenue, Hilton Head Island
- Trattoria Divina, located in Park Plaza shopping center just outside the main Sea Pines gate
Thanks to Tony & Becky Fazzini, owners of Michael Anthony’s, and Chef Chris Johnson for sharing the restaurant’s awesome recipe for Spaghetti with Crab with the Foodie Vibe blog. Grazie!
Michael Anthony’s Spaghetti with Crab
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 1 lb jumbo lump crab
- 1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes (cherry, grape or plum)
- 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
- 1⁄2 cup white wine
- 2 cups arugula
- 1⁄4 cup lemon juice
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- Dash of crushed red pepper (optional)
- 1⁄4 cup chopped Italian parsley
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package directions. In a large sauté pan, lightly heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add fresh tomatoes and garlic. Sauté a minute or two to slightly soften tomatoes and lightly brown the garlic.
Deglaze the pan with white wine and lemon juice. Add the arugula, butter, the cooked pasta and crab meat, season with salt and pepper and parsley, and toss to incorporate. Place in serving bowls and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Serves 4-6.