It’s a new Italian restaurant but even though the gloss has not yet worn from the green upholstery I have the sense that Primo has a bright future.
This is an airy and contemporary restaurant that seats around 70 in the main area. Yes, OK, so that’s larger than your regular side-street pasta and pizza eatery but it does still have some of those cherished characteristics of smaller establishments.
A restaurant isn’t just about the food on the plate. If that was the case then many people would stay home for dinner. It has to do with location, staff and ambiance. Primo couldn’t be better placed, having Leicester Square station just around the corner and fleets of buses and shoals of taxis (or is that flocks of taxis?) just outside the door on Shaftesbury Avenue. The staff all seem to be Italian and they know about the dishes on the menu – a refreshing change from experiences in some other restaurants. The ambiance mellows with the passage of hours: there is the expectant buzz of pre-theatre groups but then the intimacy of later evening when quiet corners can be found in which to enjoy good conversation along with delicious food.
Primo has only been open a matter of months but it has a menu that is pure old-school comfort, with the addition of a few fashionable retro items that will gladden the heart of any right-thinking epicurean who glows at the prospect of well-loved but now regrettably scarce dishes.
Stracciatella is Roman-style egg-drop soup. The name comes from the Italian stracciato, “torn”, the beaten eggs producing light strands in the broth. It’s a classic Italian family soup and it’s rare on restaurant menus in the UK, where rustic dishes are often considered inappropriate offerings from a professional kitchen.
Carpaccio of Sea Bass, rocket salad, and lemon dressing was my light starter. It’s a simple preparation but freshness of fish is key to its success. It’s not a dish to be made long in advance as the acid from the dressing acts as a cooking agent. Sea bass works particularly well as it is a mild-flavoured and delicate fish.
Tagliatelle al Ragu makes a hearty starter for cool days or a traditional main course. A ragu is a slow-cooked and flavourful meat sauce and is the basis for many celebrated dishes. Here it is served simply over pasta with a grating of cheese as garnish.
But what of the aforementioned retro dish? Well, it’s Pollo Sorpresa. That might not sound familiar but think of Chicken Kiev and you, if you are of a certain age, will recollect the anticipation of gingerly cutting into a breaded chicken breast stuffed with garlic butter. I have no idea why this has fallen out of favour. Yes, that’s exactly the problem: we consider food as fashionable but how can that be? If food was good last week then it’s good this week. This is one to try, as many diners attest. It said to be one of the most popular menu items at Primo.
Veal Osso Bucco served with creamy saffron risotto has long been an Italian restaurant classic. It’s a Milanese speciality of cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, wine and stock. The name is Italian for “bone with a hole”, and those bones are evident in this rich dish of tender meat. Some crusty bread and a glass of house red made this a perfect late evening dinner on a cold, will-it-ever-be-summer evening.
Apricot Cake with Ricotta cheese is an individual presentation of Italian baking. Ricotta cakes in various guises fill pages of many Italian family cookbooks. It’s not an intricately decorated confection but more on the lines of a proper pud. Not perhaps in the retro category but another dish that illustrates the timeless qualities of good Italian food.
Primo is smart and unfussy. Its menu relies on fresh ingredients treated with respect rather than being fiddled with. One has the impression of home cooking rather than of cheffy posing. Chef Claudio Barchieri trained in Milan before coming to London. His culinary pedigree is impeccable – he was previously head chef at San Carlo in Highgate, and Primo now showcases his solid skills to best advantage.
(This resturant is now closed)
117 Shaftesbury Avenue
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018