A lot has been said already about the world-class food served at Primo Restaurant in Rockland. Chef Melissa Kelly and crew have been nominated for (and won) several James Beard Awards. Anthony Bourdain featured the restaurant on the Maine episode of the Travel Network’s “No Reservations.” Nearly every dining guide for the state insists you visit Kelly and husband-partner Price Kushner’s restored Victorian mansion on South Main Street in Rockland.
And with good reason — the soulful, imaginative food is rooted in Kelly’s Italian upbringing and her time spent cooking at acclaimed restaurants such as Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in California and the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in upstate New York. Primo has routinely been ranked among the best restaurants in New England, and though the food is top notch, it’s entirely possible to have an affordable meal there. Two can eat off the excellent bar menu, with drinks, for under $50. Or, two can have an unforgettable meal in the regular dining room and spend as much as you care to. Either way, Primo is an experience well worth seeking out.
The first thing you notice upon arriving at Primo are the greenhouses and buzzing bees. Much of the food served — from greens to tomatoes to broiler chickens — is raised on site, on Primo’s compact but plentiful kitchen farm. While inside the restaurant hums with preparatory work for that night’s dinner, outside there’s a kind of serene, orderly productivity, as farm hands plant seedlings, harvest lettuce and herbs and care for chickens, ducks, bees and pigs.
For the 2012 season (Primo’s 13th overall), Kelly hired farmer Jacinda Martinez as her head gardener. Martinez, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., worked for the last two seasons at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick, where she managed the restaurant accounts, sourcing produce to eateries in the Brunswick area.
It was there she got a taste for the symbiotic relationship between farm and table, a relationship that’s perfectly illustrated at Primo. As Martinez says, she’s Kelly’s eyes in the field. She can come to Kelly with a variety of different veggies — from baby spinach to green tomatoes — and together they can figure out how many they need and of what size, texture and color. Of course, Mother Nature does have the final say in what comes out of the garden — but Martinez and Kelly can work together to improvise on the fly.
Kelly, who co-founded Primo restaurant in Rockland and oversees satellite restaurants in Tucson, Ariz., and Orlando, Fla., also has written a cookbook-memoir, “Mediterranean Women Stay Slim, Too: Eating to Be Sexy, Fit and Fabulous!” that’s available at Amazon.com.
Primo Restaurant, located at 2 South Main St. in Rockland, is open Wednesday-Sunday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Correction: An early version of this story said "No Reservations" is a Food Network show. It airs on Travel Channel.