Photography by John Wrightenberry
Fulvio Valsecci is a man driven by two talents. Fortunate Columbians have experienced one of them: his superb culinary achievement known as Ristorante Divino. Fewer of us know that Valsecci easily may have been one of the names, along with Palmer, Nicklaus, or Player, you’d have seen on a Sunday afternoon PGA broadcast back in the ‘70’s. Indeed, Fulvio has a remarkable aptitude for golf. But luckily for thousands of his restaurant patrons, creating fine cuisine proved to be the dominant talent.Fulvio’s story begins in Dervio, a small town on the eastern shore of Italy’s Lake Como. The Valsecci family had restaurants, supermarkets, and butcher shops and young Fulvio grew up helping in those businesses. When his schooling ended and it was time for him to set out on his own in life, he stuck to the familiar and began a self-guided apprenticeship working in restaurants across the region including the cities of Milan, Genoa, and St. Moritz.
Good chefs mentor others. Through the Chef’s Association in Milan, Fulvio met a chef who recommended that he go to work for the Genoa-based Home Lines cruise company, whose fleet included the SS Oceanic, MS Italia, and SS Homeric. Under their Executive Chef Mario Ratto, Fulvio perfected his skills, working among sixty other chefs on each cruise. He recalls that in those days the restaurants on the large ocean liners were comparable to any of the finest on earth. The cuisine was mostly Italian and cruises included a formal gala dinner for the passengers before final docking. Fulvio sailed throughout the Mediterranean and Atlantic, voyaging to locales as varied as South America and Scandinavia.
After three years at sea, Fulvio took another offer from a chef at a port of call in the Bahamas. For a time, he worked at top tier restaurants including the Café Martinique and the Nassau Beach Hotel. But it was at the Supper Club in West End, Grand Bahama that he met a Canadian co-worker who made incessant, often irritating invitations for Fulvio to join him on the golf course for a round. Eventually Fulvio acceded, and from his first stroke he was hooked. Having never played the game before, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that he had a natural talent for it. He soon found the driving range to be a respite from the heat and bustle of the kitchen. Eventually he met local pro, Bob Rogers, who worked with him for three months to fine-tune his game. Bob rewarded Fulvio with a bag and set of clubs, setting him up as a zero handicap scratch player.
Being so close to the U.S., Fulvio decided to make a go of it on the mainland. With fine cuisine and golf on his mind, he applied to, and was offered jobs at Greenbrier, Homestead, Wigwam, and Sea Pines. Sea Pines, on Hilton Head Island, won out because they offered him all the golf he could play while employed as their chef. Thus began Fulvio’s twenty-five year golf outing on the island. Of course when he wasn’t hitting the links, he was building a set of stateside culinary fans.
As the island began to grow in the early ‘70’s, Fulvio recognized the need for fine dining outside the handful of exclusive resorts. The opening of his first restaurant, La Pentola, began a period of entrepreneurship during which he owned and operated four restaurants including the successful, Fulvio’s, which many of his current clients remember.
Time on the resort island was marked by the busy tourist season from about March through October, and the relative calm during the coldest months. Eventually Fulvio longed for a market where his business didn’t have to hibernate for a third of a year. At the same time, his family was growing and he wanted to ensure that his daughters were exposed to more than the frenetic and dormant extremes that the Low Country island had to offer.
When there is an important decision to make, the pastoral game of golf often serves to clear the mind. So Fulvio took six months off, ostensibly to play as much golf as he possibly could, but also to find a place to relocate. His wife, D’Ann, was from Falls Church, VA, so naturally Fulvio considered Washington D.C. On a trip up there from Hilton Head, he stopped to visit old friend Franz Meier at a place called Columbia’s in our capital city’s AT&T building. A three-week visit helping out at the restaurant turned into a nine-month stint. Visions of D.C. faded, and Fulvio considered settling in Columbia.
Some old customers from Hilton Head tipped the scale by suggesting that he open a restaurant in Columbia. As fate would have it, the space occupied by La Petit Chateau on Devine Street became available, so Fulvio leased it and named his new venture Ristorante Divino after the street on which it was located. Although the restaurant was a hit, Fulvio was never completely satisfied with only sixty seats and no bar. After a few years, he decided to move his operation to a Gervias Street warehouse in the up-and-coming Vista area. He kept the name, but redesigned the interior to streamline the kitchen and accommodate more diners. He added a bar for ambiance and to give people a comfortable place to wait if they happened to have late reservations.
Having now been in the new space for thirteen years, Fulvio has had time to perfect the primarily Northern Italian cuisine, featuring dishes such as gnocchi di patate and costoletta di vitello piemontese. In the past, he has tried swapping out items on the menu to give his clients some variety, but he received so many requests for the missing dishes that he now rarely changes the menu. However, he does develop numerous daily specials that enable him to offer seasonal fare and specialties such as Divino’s rack of lamb.
Thirteen years has also been plenty of time for Fulvio to give back to the profession he loves by mentoring other aspiring chefs. Such noted local chefs as Ryan Kerr, Henry Griffin, Mike Davis of Terra, and Mike Deevy (formerly of the Governor’s Mansion, and currently back at Divino’s), have made their way through Fulvio’s kitchen, gaining valuable experience from a culinary and entrepreneurial master.
“The profession chooses you.” If Fulvio had it his way, be may have spent his days chasing a dimpled white ball down some manicured fairway. Indeed, he hits the links whenever he can find the time. But like Ulysses, Fulvio has always been lured by the Sirens’ call, his Siren emanating from the kitchen. Golf, with all it’s pleasures, has been a mere companion on his journey. It can be said that a chef’s nature is to give comfort and joy to others by preparing the best possible meal for them. In Fulvio’s case, he is destined to serve the dishes that brought him comfort and joy as a child on the shores of Lake Como.