Painted on the short, western wall of Primizie is a mural depicting a group of merry people quaffing wine and having a decidedly great time. Included in this scene is a dictionary definition of an osteria – a traditional meeting place for family, friends, and neighbors to imbibe, share a meal, and enjoy one another's company. The term "trattoria" has been in the common American restaurant lexicon for a long time, but we weren't as familiar with the term "osteria." If this is what Primizie purports to be, then what is a trattoria? We checked with our source of Italian expertise, our friend Stefania who hails from Bologna, and she revealed the subtle differences between the two. In an osteria, Stefania said, you can drink a lot of wine with your friends and bang your hands on the table and sing songs, and no one will mind. A trattoria is traditionally operated by a family, and such behavior will likely get you tossed out. Got it!
We didn't bang our hands on our table and sing songs, but on a recent Saturday night at the new 11th Street eatery, we recognized friends at no fewer than three of the 20 or so tables, all of whom appeared to be enjoying the savory food, liberally imbibing in wine, and having a fine time. Primizie opened to crowds that quickly embraced the sleek but casual cafe. Situated on the thriving 11th Street corridor in a new, multipurpose brick structure, Primizie features a long, expansive wall of windows facing 11th Street. During the day, the dining room is bathed in natural light; at night, the twinkling lights of the urban location lend a sophisticated air to the room. The decor is sleek and minimalist without being cold: polished concrete floors, wood tables, and stylish hanging light fixtures. At lunch, orders are placed and checks settled with the cashier at the counter. There's full table service at dinner.
My husband and I enjoyed a rare late lunch out together in the bright dining room on a recent Friday. The menu, including specials listed on the chalkboard, features the three big Ps of Italian eateries: pizza, panini, and pasta. On this day, a fourth "P" was offered as a special: polenta topped with house-made sausage (which I initially read from across the room to my horror as "horse-made sausage"), caramelized onions, roasted red tomatoes, and wilted fresh spinach ($12). My husband went with the gnocchi with corn, chanterelle mushrooms, and sage ($11). I started with a side Caesar salad ($5), a dish I used to adore but which has become so ubiquitous, it seems to be included on all menus by law, where it rarely amounts to more than romaine overly dressed with vaguely cheesy, mayonnaise-based dressing. At Primizie, you're treated to the pale interior leaves of romaine (usually not my favorite part) tossed with a delicate, olive-oil-based dressing and topped with pickled red onion, shavings of Parmesan, and Primizie crisps, their version of the necessary crouton. It was an ideal example of the care lavished on the most rudimentary dish at the osteria. Our entrées delighted both of us, as well. The sausage was fully flavored with fennel, and the accompanying vegetables created that delicious Italian trifecta of sausage, peppers, and onions. The bed of golden polenta on which the stew sat was perfectly textured and flavored. We were equally smitten with the gnocchi cooked to a lovely, fluffy texture. The crisp corn kernels provided a sweet and crunchy contrast to the dumplings. The entrées were accompanied by squares of a curious sort of bread that resembled a mildly herby tortilla more than anything. Despite the midday hour, we couldn't resist a glass of wine each to go along with our lunches, a lovely Tiamo Sangiovese ($7) and Bong Bong Shiraz ($8) respectively. We just had to prolong the experience, so we perused the bakery case and picked a sample of the offerings including a pignoli cookie (75 cents), a citrus ricotta treat (75 cents), a brownie ($1.50), and a lemon bar ($1). A couple of cups of coffee and several shared nibbles later, we were perfectly satisfied.
Our second visit was on the aforementioned crowded Saturday night. This time, our 15-year-old joined us. The bustling room and repeated greetings from friends and acquaintances from adjoining tables gave the room the ambience described on the mural. For starters this time, I opted for the spinach with ripe dolce Gorgonzola, candied pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette ($5), while my husband had the Insalata Misto ($10) with grilled avocado, pancetta, and red-chile and black-olive vinaigrette. Grilling avocado is an excellent idea, and it provides a silky and mild counterpoint to the snappy and salty wafers of pancetta.
Our entrée selections were Ravioli di Caprino con Burro di Oliva ($13), triangles of pasta filled with goat cheese and scallion in a black-olive butter; Taglitelle Alla Bolognese ($13), which was rich with beef and sausage; and one of the evening's specials, scallops with grilled corn and pomegranate seeds atop mashed potatoes ($13). Each dish was a success, enthusiastically shared and tasted among the three of us. The Bolognese, meaty and hearty and soul-satisfying, felt like a hug, though it would have benefited from a bit more defatting. The tang of the goat cheese in the pasta pillows went beautifully with the briny olive butter (although more butter than necessary dressed the plate), and the crisp kernels of sweet corn and pomegranate contrasted nicely with the silky scallops. The same curious flat bread accompanied the entrées and came in handy to wipe the plates.
We weren't exactly hungry, but we managed to sample desserts just the same. I went with the semifreddo ($6), a charming dish of two petite scoops of deeply vanilla gelato dusted with cocoa, a steaming cup of espresso, and a hazelnut biscotto. Our daughter tried the Torta di Limone ($6), a tangy round of lemon cheesecake served with a white-chocolate straw and dabs of lemon curd, while my husband made another pass at the dessert case and chose a chocolate/pecan bar ($1.50). Steaming cups of cappuccino ($2.65) provided the ideal accompaniment and finale.
Owners chef Mark Spedale and his wife, Lisa, have a hit in Primizie, thanks to their clear vision of the friendly osteria they wished to create and its careful realization. Upon departing, you're thinking of the next time you can return with friends; you also get the feeling that if you found yourself moved to sing a few tunes, diners at adjoining tables and the staff would approve.
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