Remote Elegance

Tucson's upscale restaurant scene has gotten a little more crowded with Primo

For food-loving Tucsonans, the long and winding road that leads to the sparkling new JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa should end at Primo Restaurant. Operating under the guidance of Executive Chef Melissa Kelly, a James Beard Award-winning chef, the restaurant is the resort's top dining venue. Elegant and warm, this Mediterranean-influenced restaurant offers Tucsonans another option when they're looking for someplace special to dine.

We made reservations for a Sunday evening. In spite of it being the height of the Gem Show, the restaurant was pretty empty. That, I think, comes from the fact that not enough people know about Primo--and the fact that it's totally off the beaten path. The resort is located at what might be called the "end of nowhere."

But oh, what a location! The dining room is situated in the "basement" of the building, yet it's still high enough to offer great views of the mountains and the beautiful resort through the huge wall of windows. From the patio, diners can view both sunsets and the lights of the city. The room itself is elegantly drawn in deep reds, golds and greens. Dark wood adds a warm glow. There is seating at the gleaming pizza bar, if that catches your fancy.

We ordered a drink apiece--for John, a martini ($9.50), and I ordered a nice Italian red ($11) from the well-balanced wine list. The wines come from around the world, with prices ranging from reasonable to, for most of us, special-event-only.

The menu read like a tribute to all things American: beef from Summerfield Farms in Virginia; swordfish from the Pacific Northwest; cod from Casco Bay in Maine; Laura Chenel Sonoma goat cheese; Marin County's Niman Ranch pork; Pennsylvania's Jamison Farm lamb; and oysters from coastal waters.

For an appetizer, John went with the piccolo fritto ($13), and for dinner, the dry-aged Summerfield Farms New York strip steak ($38). I ordered the grilled octopus ($12), and as my entrée, the pan-roasted Casco Bay cod ($26).

Within minutes, our server brought a basket of toasted onion foccacia and a drizzle of Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. The bread was delicious; the oil held a strong, biting flavor (not nearly as mellow as something Italian or Spanish).

Moments later, our server brought an amuse bouche (a wee portion of a chef's specialty meant to tempt the taste buds): a wonderful, petite grilled swordfish spiedini (i.e., on a skewer) on a bed of flavorful Tunisian couscous. The combination of textures and flavors did indeed please the mouth.

Our appetizers were also quite mouth-pleasing. John's fritto was served in a paper cone and contained so much more than just the calamari, shrimp and artichokes described on the menu. There were also deep-fried broccoli, onions and other veggies. The batter was light, and the aioli was made of a thick puree of vegetables (as explained by the friendly server), with, of course, plenty of garlic.

My appetizer held a pile of frisee tossed with a garlicky dressing with fresh green beans, tiny grilled potato halves and, of course, octopus. The octopus was grilled perfectly, slightly smoky and ever so tender, cut into bite-size pieces, with a good-sized tentacle on the edge of the plate.

The plates were whisked away, replaced shortly thereafter by the amazing entrées. John declared his steak to be one of the best he's had in a long time. Juicy, tender and full of flavor, it was definitely not Western beef. The knife cut through it like butter. The steak was served with grilled baby veggies and an imaginative, rich, sweet potato and gorgonzola gratin. The gratin was so delicious that when it was gone, he wanted more.

The perfectly cooked cod sat on a bed of risotto prepared primavera-style. Chock full of shrimp, crab, broccoli florets, tiny peas and small tomatoes--all topped with sautéed spinach and a tender, creamy rice--the risotto made the meal.

And then it was time for dessert. The menu includes an imaginative assortment of items, including a daily cheese plate and several after-dinner drinks. I couldn't resist the afogato with both vanilla and chocolate gelato and cinnamon zeppole ($8.50). John ordered the cannoli that was topped with wild Italian cherries ($8.50).

They can both be summed up in one word: wow! The cannoli were finger-sized, tuile-like hazelnut wafers filled with rich, thick, slightly sweetened ricotta. But those cherries, oh those cherries ... sweet and sinful, they could've stood alone as a fantastic ending to a fantastic meal.

My afogato (which the server explained means "drowned" in Italian) was beautifully presented in a martini glass with the espresso in a tiny glass carafe on the side, giving me the opportunity to do the actual drowning. The vanilla gelato had chocolate shavings on top, and the chocolate had white shavings. A dark chocolate wafer spiral added an artistic touch. The three zeppole were dusted with cinnamon. Still warm from the fryer, these light, eggy sweet "doughnuts" melted in my mouth. I didn't want to share.

Service was professional and unhurried. We had plenty of questions, and each was answered, one even by the server going back into the kitchen to find out the details. It was teamwork at its finest.

This is the third Primo restaurant that Kelly has opened. The original is on the coast of Maine (and is open only during the summer tourist season); the second one is located at another JW Marriott in Orlando, Fla. With Kelly at the helm--Primo Maine alumni work in the Tucson kitchen--Tucsonans should make a point of taking the drive to Primo. Not only will you enjoy a wonderful dinner; the drive itself will entertain.

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