It's almost like Primi Urban Café doesn't expect to be busy. A large section of the dining room is dominated by a cozy arrangement of couches and chairs. Busy restaurants call that waste of space, but Primi isn't bringing in enough diners — yet — to worry about the lost revenue that sitting area represents. Still, I suspect the couches will soon be replaced by a few extra tables and chairs. Primi is good, and it's going to catch on.
The restaurant is touted as a café, and for the first six weeks Primi owners Arno and Irene Von Waltsleben tried to be a little bit of everything for everyone, with breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. I'm glad the Von Waltslebens recently cut the breakfast. Primi is a family joint staffed by family members, and that sort of schedule can burn you out quick.
On a recent Friday night, owner Arno works the kitchen with one of his sons, while wife Irene is serving tables — assisted by a cute but clueless sprite of a helper. The front-of-the-house crew sports an amateur enthusiasm that is endearing, but not especially efficient. Courses come slowly and plates are taken too quickly, leaving our table clear of food for most of the evening.
No big deal, because we've got bottles of lush South African Chenin Blanc to keep us company, as well as a vibrant Australian Shiraz blend to fortify us. The food, when we get it, is well worth the wait. Primi may be casual — and inexpensive to boot — but there is a precision shown in almost every dish that belies the food's humble surroundings.
Like beef carpaccio ($7.95), simply prepared with olive oil, lemon juice and pecorino. It's sliced against the grain, leaving the red beef with a lacey, cotton candy texture that turns raw meat into cloudy delight. Or tender mussels ($10.95) bathed in a steaming tomato broth, the sauce liberally impregnated with raw garlic and hot pepper. Neither dish is anything new, but both are done just right.
Golden wedges of fried mozzarella ($6.95) could be gooey dreck, but not when accompanied by Primi's vivid red tapenade of sweet and tart sun-dried tomatoes and pungent raw garlic. My companions sneer when I ordered the fried cheese, but after one taste of the sauce there is a pitched battle of clashing forks over the last few bites.
Bruschetta ($5.50) has a foundation of good bread, cut thick and grilled crisp, topped by chunky tomatoes, raw garlic and shaved pecorino. The tomatoes are underripe, but excusable. That tapenade has put me in a forgiving mood.
Salads are big enough to be meals for lesser people, especially the chicken ($6.95). The greens are dressed in a Greek-inspired vinaigrette heavy on the oregano, and tossed with strips of herbed chicken, steamed broccoli and hard-cooked eggs. In the "hot beef" ($7.95), slices of grilled steak, roasted potatoes and mixed greens are doused in a yogurt dressing accented with mint, one of a few glances toward the Von Waltslebens' African heritage.
They are natives of South Africa, where the Von Waltslebens owned successful franchise restaurants. Considering the high quality of Primi's food, I'm happy that Arno sloughed off the shackles of Kentucky Fried Chicken and trained with an Italian chef. Even better, the family decided to move west and settle in downtown St. Pete, one of their favorite vacation destinations.
The "recco" chicken pasta ($9.95) is another dish with an African accent. A bowl of fettuccine and chicken is dressed in a simple tomato sauce jazzed up by a hefty infusion of curry powder. To me, it tastes like the curry just lies on top of the tomato flavor like a wet blanket, dulling it to inconsequentiality, but my friends like it. Bolognese ($7.95) is better, a bowl of blustery meat sauce coating thick fettuccine.
Marsala is a lost art, and the chefs who have perfected it with thin cutlets of veal often have trouble with the subtlety of fish. Arno's fish marsala ($16.95) is perfect. The sauce is earthy and rich, but light enough to enhance the uncomplicated filet of mild flesh. A bed of perfectly sautéed spinach adds a touch of chewy and bitter that contrasts with the soft luxury of fish and sauce, with a layer of creamy mashed providing yet a third texture.
Primi's lamb shank ($17.95) is so unfussy it's a bit drab, but the golden pile of polenta accompanying it is a dream. Lighter than air, the fluffy pillow of corn meal is laced with just enough cheese and seasoning to make it a proper side dish. Skirt steak ($13.95) has a dark, sweet and salty crust from a bath in balsamic vinegar, with more "pesto rosso" — that sun-dried tomato tapenade — piled next to the beef. The steak is good, but that sauce is still incredible. Can I order a vat of that to go?
So many places have falsely co-opted the "bistro" tag in recent years that its meaning has been lost. The Von Waltslebens named Primi a "café," but they could have easily laid claim to "bistro." Primi serves hearty comfort food and simple dishes designed to replace the daily meals of local folk, at prices that make it easy to eat there regularly. That's a bistro, in my book.
Sometimes, I end up giving a high rating to a great restaurant, knowing that I feel no driving inclination to ever return. It happens more than you might think. Then there are places that, whatever their mild problems, instantly become part of my regular culinary repertoire. I'll be going back to Primi. A lot.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.