Right now we’re in the midst of a whatsapp conversation that centrals around finding an Italian restaurant for someone’s birthday. Menus are being batted about over instant messaging, price ranges are being discussed. All the usual suspects in Birmingham are there and all of them will undoubtedly disappoint, with their identikit dishes, dried pasta, and lack of imagination. Hang on, Pizza Express has been mentioned. Holy shit. I assume this is some kind of demented joke. Nope. They are being serious. I bang my head repeatedly against a table and wonder what I have done in a past life to deserve this. My opinion is being asked for: I want to tell them we should book a flight to Prague, to Divinis where some of the best Italian food I have tried can be had.
Go to Prague and you will find Divinis tucked away on a back street in the Jewish Quarter, far from the stags and hens and strippers which marginally taint this beautiful city. It’s a conservative space in a affluent part of town and is expensive by local standards, which means it is not expensive at all. The interior is warm beige, bright artwork and modernist light fittings. The staff all have strong jawlines and matching checked shirts. Its a nice place to spend an evening by any standard.
Cold cuts of meat speak of intention, amongst them impeccably sourced mortadella and salami. The board is dotted with salty pecorino, whilst the accompanying olives and sundried tomatoes feel like an afterthought that we are glad for. There is homemade raviolo rolled so thinly that we can see the cheese and spinach through its opaque skin. The thick tomato sauce which layers the plate is a testament to time and seasoning. A blancmange coloured risotto is less about its additions of sausage and courgette and more about the rice, cooked perfectly to al dente. Such attention to detail leads me to guess that whoever does the cooking here is either Italian or an Italian obsessive. Either is fine with me.
We order braised ox cheeks because we are told that they are a specialist of the chef. They do not disappoint, though portion size dictates that there is no need for them to be plural. The marsala wine they have been cooked in has added a slight acidity which holds up against the fatty meat and sweet raisins. Its a rich dish, as the best ones always are, and it needs the spinach to provide respite.
Veal osso buco is the kind of dish I wish we would see in every Italian restaurant but seldom do. Here the medallions have been braised until its just holding its shape, with the cooking liquor and fine dice of vegetables clinging on for dear life. Its good interpretation held true by a gremolata full of garlic and parsley that brings everything to life. I pile on the creamy garlic risotto that it is served with and clean the plate whilst wondering where else in the world I could find such delight for under fifteen pound.
Dessert would be a curveball of finesse compared to the rustic fare that had previously been served to us. A well made cherry parfait has cracks of sea salt throughout will elevate the fruit flavour, and a deconstructed Jaffa Cake – my words, not theirs – that is as good to eat as it is to look at. The sweetened cubes of bread are the textural base to provide distance between segments of orange and pipe bitter chocolate. Just like the parfait it excels at not being overly sweet whilst still feeling like a dessert.
The meal comes at a price similar to what we would find at home with a level of cooking well above what we are used to for Italian cuisine. Starters and desserts all under a tenner, mains not much more. We take advice on the wine and plump for a Czech white which does little to repay my faith. Still, as far as finding somewhere to eat in Prague I could recommend Divinis highly enough. There is warmth and skill aplenty which I would return to in a heartbeat.