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Divino, an Italian diamond in the rough

A gnocchi dish comes with a creamy parmesan sauce at Divino.
A gnocchi dish comes with a creamy parmesan sauce at Divino. Poppy McPherson

Divino, an Italian diamond in the rough

Divino, the Italian restaurant that recently opened on Kampot’s Old Market Street, didn’t make a stellar first impression. The place is humble-looking, but it took hours to get a seat. There were fewer than five tables, but there was also an enormous empty space which suggested that one had been removed. There was an expansive menu, laden with creations that made use of the region’s great pepper as well as Italian ingredients. But the staff were so overworked that, on a recent Saturday night at least, they didn’t have time to make some of the best options. Then the food came along, and it was so wonderful.

Good Italian food doesn’t have to be slick. It’s hard to reconcile the abundance of identikit pasta menus, many of which can be found in Phnom Penh, with the hodge-podge charm of real Italian home-cooking. And that’s where Marco and Sofia come in.

The Italian-born couple landed in Kampot last year and opened Divino in December.

The place is set in a basic Khmer-style house and feels more like someone’s dining room than a trattoria. The kitchen neighbours the bedroom. On the walls, print-out photos show the couple at landmarks around the world. Marco and Sofia by the pyramids. Marco and Sofia in Kampot. Marco and Sofia and a little bambino. Outside, rattan furniture sits on the street and a hand-made paper sign advertises Italian cookies for sale. The endearing homemade quality of it all compensates for the uninspiring signage, which obscurely advertises Italian with a photo of Cambodian-style slabs of red beef.

When I dined here, the food took a very long time to arrive, after an hour’s wait for a table. An excited request for Egyptian karkade prompted the delivery of a Diet Coke. But who cares? Sofia, who serves as co-owner and waitress, is impossibly sweet and if you’re in a hurry, you can book a table in advance. On a slower night, things might run more smoothly. Though the opportunity to bring your own wine would be appreciated – the house red was very acidic.

But it was all worth it for the masterful gnocchi alone. Here, the potato pillows were the centrepiece of the dish, soft and fluffy with a rich salty flavour of their own that added depth to the parmesan coated sauce in which it was drenched. Taking a bite into that gnocchi was like eating a brilliantly tender piece of chicken. On top, a tomato-based sauce with roasted red peppers, broccoli, olives, onions, and courgette was flavoured with Kampot pepper and creamy parmesan. Gnocchi can be a bit like risotto – it gets boring quick. Not so here. And all for $3.50.

My companion ordered the diavola pasta. Diovola is one of those words that every pseudo-Italiano restaurant employs to refer to something slightly spicy. But this was the real deal: penne served with fleshy sausage and a tangy tomato sauce.

Marco didn’t have time to make the soufflé, but the replacement was more than adequate. A dark chocolate tart was presented with an artful sprinkling of cocoa dust and half a passionfruit. The dense topping was complemented by the sour crunch of the pips and crispy, light pastry.

This is Italian of a quality it can be hard to find in the major metropolises of the world, let alone Phnom Penh. Now, how long until the couple tire of Kampot and move to the capital?

Divino is located at #43, Old Market Street, Kampot Town.

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