Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Primo -- Rockland, Maine

Primo, in Italian, can be a double entendre: it means first (and often the best), but also primary, as in ingredients. And at PRIMO restaurant in Rockland, Maine, where the growing season is shorter than in many places in America, chef Melissa Kelly has managed to draw on the natural resources of the land. She runs what she dubs a "full circle kitchen," the idea of which I love. 

Like most kitchens that understand the restaurant business model for turning a profit, the idea of not wasting anything figures heavily. But Chef Kelly also raises animals for food, from hens to pigs, collecting eggs, curing meat -- and grows vegetables on acres of land and in greenhouses, harvesting edible flowers and collecting honey produced on-site. Not everything she uses comes from her land, but everything that comes from her land gets used. The rest is filled in by local producers she knows and trusts. In a time when so many chefs throw around terms like "locavore" and "farm-to-table," Primo is really doing it, as they've done for years, and the end result is a happy place to eat and drink. 

Primo encompasses both an American culinary ethos and an Italian adherence to tradition. Seasonality is obviously paramount in a kitchen so reliant on produce and proteins that are grown and raised locally: this has always been the way Italians cook, and eat. The idea of vegetables and fruits playing pivotal roles in a cuisine -- also Italian. So is the custom of serving cheeses and salumi and artisanal pizza, all center stage here. What's American about Primo is the dedication and hard work that are behind making this restaurant a success despite the odds, and that the driving force behind this is a woman -- something all too rare in the restaurant industry, though the U.S leads the way in this department.

So here, I'm writing less of a review of the restaurant's menu -- that changes a little too frequently -- and more of the restaurant on the whole. Though I can tell you that it's worth trying their house-made salumi and local cheeses. It's definitely worth considering one of their homemade pizzas, and often there's a pizza bianca with some seasonal greens, local tomatoes, and delicious, gooey cheese.
Quite often you can find a great foie gras appetizer, like the one pictured here, seared to perfection over garlic toast with champagne grapes and a frisee salad with figs and a sour-sweet port sauce. Who can argue with classic flavor pairings and high-quality ingredients, especially when it's so lovingly presented on colorful dishes?

Primi -- that's Italian for first courses, mostly pastas -- are expertly-prepared at Primo. And the pasta is homemade, like the fettucine served with shrimp, arugula pesto, roasted tomatoes, and lots of parmigiano (though most seafood pastas do not get cheese under any circumstances, shrimp is the one sometime-exception to that rule. I'm assuming Chef Kelly knows this about Italian food...)
Main courses include various iterations of local seafood, like cod, or dayboat scallops, sometimes even the ubiquitous Maine lobster. But chances are, even if the ingredients are common in these parts, the preparations won't be. Seared duck breast gets paired with an earthy warm farro salad and grilled cipollini, and grilled swordfish gets a spicy tomato-and-chile broth over charred vegetables. And all dishes get a flourish of homegrown greens and edible flowers so they look picture-perfect. 
Sometimes the dishes are a little heavy-handed in their presentation. Sometimes one too many ingredients are used in a dish. Not everything is perfect. But that's also part of the charm here. You can't find fault with the quality of the ingredients, nor the provenance. The flavor is there, as is the love in the preparation. And pride in the whole operation. When our attentive waiter found out I am a chef, he pulled me aside on my way back from the ladies' room and offered me a tour of the establishment. He showed me the other dining rooms and more casual bar where locals come to order pizza, appetizers, and share a bottle of wine. He brought me into the kitchen and explained how things work, where their in-house primary ingredients become their homemade menu items. It was a general and thorough behind-the-scenes: transparency, and pride in what they do as a team. They were happy to share all of this with a colleague, and I really appreciated it. 

We all loved our meal, some of us visitors from Manhattan, others relative natives who live nearby and can call Primo a top-notch local spot. Lucky them. In this restaurant they have a warm and wonderful place where they can eat, and dine (we know these are two different things), welcomed to a homey spot where the food is a bit more formal than the service, but neither is overbearing. And they can rest assured that the food they're eating has been raised, cultivated, butchered, caught, cooked, and served with love and pride. We need more places like this in America, and everywhere.

2 South Main Street 
Rockland, Maine
(207) 596.0770 

*Additional locations now in Orlando, FL and Tuscon, AZ