Spring and summer creep into Rockland, Maine, wearing 20 shades of green. For many local business owners, the warm weather signals an end to winter break and the start of a busy tourist season. But chef Melissa Kelly of Primo restaurant hasn't taken any time off. This dynamo never stops.
Melissa and her husband, pastry chef Price Kushner, spent the off-season renovating their 100-plus-year-old Victorian home. Together, they turned it into a cozy restaurant with touches inspired by frequent trips to Italy. "Price and I picked out everything, one thing at a time," Melissa says. Now savvy locals and tourists stop by to dine on spinach pappardelle or warm goat-cheese flan.
Just outside the house-turned-restaurant, 4 rambling acres extend toward the woods. Much of the land in back is taken up by organic gardens growing any number of vegetables that will appear on tonight's menu. In front, restaurant patrons admire a vast carpet of perennials―peonies, lupine, phlox, bee balm, and poppies.
In the midst of this feast for the eyes, Melissa has set up a table and chairs for another type of feast: an intimate dinner for her parents and in-laws. Though they won't be trying items from the restaurant's menu, they will enjoy a meal with Primo's hallmark Mediterranean flair. Melissa has included several of her favorite Italian specialties, such as Frutti di Mare (a seafood salad) and pizza rustica with roasted garlic and wild nettles . Like every dish she showcases at the restaurant, the menu is all about flavor. "We don't manipulate things," she says. "We let the ingredients shine through."
After tucking into her salad (but before serving up a platter of whole roasted fish ), Melissa darts into Primo's kitchen to confer with a cook preparing fresh pasta for tonight's special. "Put in a little more flour," she advises after testing the dough with experienced fingers. "Not too much."
Then it's back outside for a bite of pizza and a sweet finish: Vanilla Ice Cream Float . As the conversation winds down, Melissa gazes across the meadow filled with flowers. Greenhouse panels catch what's left of the sun and cast a gentle pink glow on heirloom tomatoes growing inside. The fragile seedlings have a few weeks to go before they appear on the menu and officially announce summer's arrival. But by then there will be something new to plant or harvest, to plan or build. For Melissa, there's a season for everything.
Primo, Rockland, Maine; 207/596-0770 or primorestaurant.com