Rite of Passaggio: Primo’s replacement serves tasty Italian dishes

David Fransua is the executive chef and food and beverage director. (Passaggio/Submitted)

By Valerie Vinyard

Passaggio has some pretty big shoes to fill.

The new flagship restaurant of JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort and Spa replaced the award-winning Primo in early October.  

Primo, which opened in 2005, was a concept by executive chef Melissa Kelly, a two-time James Beard award winner.  

David Fransua, executive chef and food and beverage director, has worked at Starr Pass since the beginning of 2017. He said the parting between Kelly and the resort was a mutual decision.

“As a resort grows and changes, some of the keepsakes of a concept changes,” says Fransua, 41. “All of our outlets have evolved. We wanted to stay true to Primo, but it wasn’t in the same boat as we were moving along.”

Fransua wanted to continue offering Italian food, but he wanted to keep it “neighborhoody” and regional. That includes featuring herbs and ingredients from local sources, as well as incorporating Sonoran elements in some dishes. The menu offers dishes from all over Italy.

“It gives you an opportunity to use products from within the neighborhood,” he says of the concept. “It lends itself to be very local.”

He describes the restaurant as “a beautiful, authentic Italian restaurant with an emphasis on showcasing Sonoran ingredients.”

For example, the charred octopus and chorizo ($18) starter comes with slightly sweeter Anasazi beans, instead of cannelloni beans. Fransua also said that the kitchen uses Sonoran white wheat in the handmade pastas and pizza doughs.

Passaggio is a scratch kitchen, meaning that everything is homemade, including the breads and sauces.

Fransua’s favorite dish on the menu is the bruschetta ($6 each). 

“I’m a big bread guy,” he says. “The ciabatta we’re making, we’re using a local wheat einkorn; it’s very simplistic. We’re doing a crescenza cheese spread, and we toss pears, which are in season, with agave syrup and a little black pepper.”

In the petite romaine salad ($16), it’s Passaggio’s take on a Caesar salad.

“We make a buttermilk dressing that’s infused with cippolini onions, a little sweet,” Fransua said. “Our croutons are leftover ciabatta bread and it’s tossed with pecorino cheese.”

The double-bone pork chop ($37) is served with gnocchi, braised cipollini, espresso demi glace and roasted kabocha. (Passaggio/Submitted)

Probably the most complex dish is the 2 1/2-inch thick double-bone pork chop ($37). Fransua described the process, noting that the pork first will be put in a brine using herbs from the resort’s garden. Then he will sous vide the dish for two and a half hours, and then it’s grilled. It’s served with potato gnocchi, roasted acorn squash and a roasted cippolini onion. 

“That pork chop is super tender and moist,” he says. “When it comes out, it’s very simplistic looking but it’s amazing.”

Fransua plans to change the menu seasonally, and he’s committed to working with smaller local producers like Pivot Produce.

As far as the dining area, the bulky booths are gone, making a more open floor plan with mostly wooden tables for four. A farmhouse vibe has replaced the elegant but mildly stuffy atmosphere of Primo. Thick, etched water glasses have green notes, and clay-style dishes add to the homey atmosphere. 

There is lounge-style seating in the bar area, with a lot of black and white. Sonoran artwork is hung throughout, and the lighting will change, including new black chandeliers.

“We got rid of some big, heavy booths,” Fransua says. “We wanted to keep it open and more level. The restaurant used to be different heights, but we evened it out. Paint and marble accents lighten up the space.”

Capacity remains at 189 inside or 210 if you include outside seating. To keep the open feel, the restaurant no longer closes its shades.

Diners have liked the new look.

“It’s been very well received,” Fransua says. “They’re glad to see us evolve.”

As for the new name? “Passaggio is an homage to our namesake,” he says. “It means ‘passage’ in Italian.”

Above all, Fransua wants diners to enjoy themselves.

“I hope they come and have great cocktails, great Italian food but also know that our ingredients are important to us and we’re using a lot of Sonoran products here.” 

Passaggio at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass

3800 W. Starr Pass Boulevard

5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays