By Alison Bailin Batz
The ultimate in luxury, JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa has something for everyone from multi-level pools and a lazy river to three Arnold Palmer Golf Courses to its own private hiking trails. In addition to offering more than 500 rooms and 75 suites, the resort is home to one of the most spectacular dining options in Southern Arizona: Primo
With perhaps the best patio dining in the city, this marvelous Mediterranean option has mastered handcrafted Italian cuisine using only the freshest ingredients, many grown on the resort’s own property.
And while few people don’t know the above, almost no one realizes executive chef Melissa Kelly is also Primo’s co-owner, along with lauded Primo pastry chef (and husband) Price Kushner. She brought the concept to Tucson in 2005 after successfully opening and running her original Primo in Maine for years. She was so successful in Maine, in fact, she was honored by the James Beard Foundation as “Best Chef: Northeast” in 1999 and 2013.
“I am a Long Island girl who grew up cooking with my Italian-born grandmother, hence my passion for all things Mediterranean,” says Kelly, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and graduated first in her class in 1988.
Kelly would work in some of the most exclusive kitchens in the country straight after graduation, including the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, Bluebeards Castle in the U.S. Virgin Islands and at An American Place in New York.
“To broaden my culinary skills, I moved west to work with Reed Heron of Lulu and the legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in the early ’90s,” says Kelly. “I didn’t have a style when I got there. By the time I left, I did: simplicity, seasonality, freshness.”
Kelly has appeared in Food & Wine magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Chocolatier and The New York Times for her culinary skill.
“Before making the move to Tucson, in 2003, I partnered with JW Marriott to open a second Primo at Grande Lakes, serving the Orlando area fine Italian cuisine in a casual, comfortable setting,” Kelly says.
In 2005, she was ready to take on the JW Starr Pass’ with the third Primo locale. Her mission there is to give guests a full sensory experience. She accomplishes this on several levels.
“Guests are invited to sip a glass of wine while strolling through our tiered organic garden, modeled after the elaborate gardens of Italy, and discovering some of the herbs and spices that will flavor their meals,” Kelly says.
“In addition, a wall of windows in the main dining room brings the outside in and affords diners a view of the stunning Tucson Mountains.”
Beyond these sensory experiences, there is the food and drink.
Kelly works with local growers and farmers to bring in unique, fresh and organic produce and meats. She also has, as noted above, the Primo Garden on-site, which is readied for a rich harvest of herbs and vegetables to be used in her open kitchen.
Her menus change seasonally based on what is freshest and locally available. Each dish is inspired by Italy, Spain, France or a combination. Among her spring stunning dishes are:
• Seafood Duo featuring diver scallops, Spanish octopus, a house made cauliflower spread, Romanesco and esplette aioli ($22)
• Coffee Rubbed Venison with Anson Mills polenta, greens, root vegetables, and red eye beef jus ($39)
There are also daily specials, including:
• Tuesday’s Mussel Madness, with all-you-can-eat mussels of the day for $23 per person
• Wine Wednesday with 25 percent off
select bottles of wine
• Thursday’s Spaghetti and Meatball Night with a complimentary glass of Nozzole Chianti Classico for $25
• Friday and Saturday’s 50-ounce Tomahawk Ribeye for Two with field salad, potato gratin, creamed greens and bordelaise for $195.
And because no true Mediterranean experience would be complete without great wine and cocktail selections, Primo also features its Primo Piatti Wine Bar, which has a well-stocked bar featuring an intriguing array of Italian and domestic wines.
“Our bartenders also serve fine imported beers and handcraft every cocktail,” Kelly says.
For those who wish to dine in the wine bar itself, Kelly offers a menu of small tastes of Primo cuisine, and eclectic array of salads, and true Italian pizzas.
3800 W. Starr Pass Boulevard