932 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Fade to May 1990. I was on assignment for the WashPost and had been put up at the Hotel del Coronado, the subject of my piece. Several times, while out and about, I passed the still-new Primavera (Italian for "springtime") and gazed longingly at the posted menu. Alas, there'd be no springtime for me -- the paper only sprang for minimal meal expenses, leaving me stuck with Denny's and delis.
Cut to the present. You may have heard me talk about Paul and Janie, old friends currently sentenced to live in El Paso. Once a year they get time off to attend a conference in San Diego, and this visit they stayed at a hotel in Coronado (not the Del). Janie and Paul are passionate about good Italian food, and Primavera was near enough their lodging to add no pain or strain to the jet lag. Besides, restaurants often change as they age (same as the rest of us), and Primavera deserved a fresh look.
First impressions can be everything, and the restaurant's ingress is impressive. You pass an enclosed bar (which separates drinkers from diners) and enter a handsome room with subdued lighting. There are two levels: the first resembles an orchestra pit; the second, up a few steps, a box-seat tier. Most of the white-clothed tables are large, fronting upholstered banquettes with leather seats. The facing upholstered chairs are armed and comfortable. Potted dwarf cypress and majestic urns preside on lofty shelves, and swingy jazz from the '40s (Ella and Ellington) plays in the background. "Reeks of class," Paul murmured.
All too soon, we realized that those oversize tables are so closely spaced that the servers must choreograph their moves. We were seated equidistant between two increasingly vocal parties of eight. "If it weren't for the noise," said Janie, "this place would be really romantic." A few nights later, after our friends had taken off, my partner and I returned for an early-evening dinner. The room was quiet, the mood mellow, but the staff were putting together a table for 14 next to us. "Don't worry," said the maître d' as he saw us counting chairs. "You'll be done before they get here."
The menu runs more than 50 items, plus four or five nightly specials (recited by the waiter). The food is not distinctively regional but draws from America's favorite Italian cuisines -- Tuscany, Piemonte, Rome, Liguria, Naples, Sicily. We discovered that Primavera's strengths are the opposite of most restaurants, which turn out amusing appetizers and less exciting entrées. Here, the appetizers are mere opening acts; the entrées are the stars.
Paul lusted for the Funghi Ripieni, mushrooms stuffed with minced veal and prosciutto and topped with melted fontina cheese. The filling was luscious, the herbed-wine sauce a little insubstantial. Calamari Luciana, Janie's choice, suffered no such problem: The squid rings and tentacles were swathed in a garlicky fresh-tomato sauce. We mopped the plate clean with slices of a fine Bread and Cie sourdough baguette.
A house specialty called Bagna Caoda [sic] Primavera was pleasant but not what we expected of a dish of that name. Usually, bagna cauda ("hot bath") implies vegetables cooked at the table in a fondue of anchovy-infused olive oil. The Primavera version is an already-cooked antipasto platter with grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, chewy oil-preserved sun-dried tomatoes, Montrachet goat cheese, and Grana Padano Parmesan, all bathed in a light, lemony sauce. An appetizer of marinated roast peppers with anchovies offered another odd rendition: The pre-roasted peppers are sautéed to order in copious quantities of cooking-quality olive oil (not extra-virgin) and served hot.
At our second visit, my partner was in the mood for minestrone. In the spring-light broth, each vegetable retained its identity -- I was glad we'd declined the offer of Parmesan on top. We enjoyed a salad of baby spinach in a gentle balsamic dressing, scattered with pancetta bits, sautéed white mushroom slices, and puffs of a creamy, powerful gorgonzola cheese. However, the "house specialty" Insalata Caesar is far from special. I have to keep reminding myself that Caesar is dead. (Et tu, Primavera?)
Our Cal-Tex foursome shared a pasta as a middle course, Italian-style. The Gnocchi alla Sarda displayed fine technique, with pillowy potato dumplings surrounded by a creamy fresh tomato sauce augmented with basil, shallots, minced prosciutto di Parma, and a subtle touch of anchovy (you'd have to know it's there to taste it). I soon realized Primavera's authentic Italian sauce-formula: A group of basic sauces are cooked in less than half an hour, then amended to order with the flavorings that each dish requires. There's no vat of Italian-American one-formula-fits-all red sauce hiding in this kitchen.
The highlight of the evening was our introduction to a fish that none of us had ever met before: Albino King Salmon, wild-caught in the seas off Seattle. Only one in a hundred of the species carries this genetic mutation. The aristocratic white flesh has a milder flavor than its common (pink-fleshed) kin. Our moist, grilled fillet was topped with sea scallops and set on a bed of young spinach in herbed cream sauce.
Every entrée comes with approximately the same seasonal vegetables (with minor variations from plate to plate). The vegetables change nightly, chef's choice. That evening's assortment included baby brussels sprouts, asparagus, and slim young carrots, plus cucumber rounds for the fish, and pan-roasted potatoes for the meat.
Veal chops with fresh porcini mushroom sauce, prosciutto, and mozzarella was another of the evening's specials. The giant double-chop was grilled until done with a pink interior. A sheet of imported prosciutto under the melted cheese topping lent depth of flavor to the mild meat. But with a sauce like this one, you could make boiled shoes taste good. Porcini (a.k.a. cèpes) are European wild mushrooms most often dried and rehydrated. The fresh ones are costly but worth every dollar. I did wish for better meat; formula-fed veal may be popular, but the flesh smells faintly like Similac. (The menu includes a near-identical dish made with chicken, Pollo alla Valdostana; but unless it's a special, its porcini are likely to be dried.)
Stuck in arid West Texas, Janie suffers a constant craving for first-rate fresh seafood. "I only come to San Diego for the fish," she kidded. Her entrée pick was Scampi alla Diavolo, prawns flamed in cognac, served over linguine with a spicy marinara sauce -- which was indeed "devilish" in its fire. "Oh, this is just what I've been needing," she said. Penne Regate Meditteraneo, on the other hand, sounded better than it tasted. The chewy pasta was garnished with baby artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and rock shrimp in a thin herbal sauce of olive oil and wine. We all felt that the accompaniments were overwhelmed by the earthy penne, which are better served by (and with) strong-flavored, clingy sauces -- including those cook-all-day mamma mia productions.
At the next dinner (sans Texans), when the waiter announced that the soup du jour was lobster bisque and that one of the specials was lobster ravioli, I happily realized that the latter had to be house-made from the day's crustacean invasion. We'd be spared the thickly rolled, thinly filled pastas that lesser restaurants buy frozen from the S.D. Ravioli and Rubber Tire Company (or whatever it's called). Indeed, our large, round raviolis offered reasonably thin pasta, swollen with a forcemeat of lobster dotted with minced chile pepper. The rounds are bathed in a concentrated saffron-cream sauce, with crimson saffron threads visible in the cream. A garnish of seared sea scallop slices went beyond lagniappe. The flavor of this well-calculated palate cleanser was as intense as the main elements of the dish. I'd venture to say that when these ravioli aren't available, the filled pastas from the regular menu would also be house-made, hence worth ordering.
One reason for our second visit was that I wanted to taste the Osso Buco Milanese, a specialty of the house. "That's awful heavy for this time of year," said my partner, but I overrode him and was glad of it. Yes, it's a huge chunk of veal attached to a Flintstone-size marrowbone, but the meat is dressed with a vernal ragout of chopped carrots, celery, chard greens, and fresh tomatoes. A well-made risotto soaks in the juices. (Pasta is also an option.) We were especially lucky, because that evening's veggies included the bittersweet combination of Belgian endive leaves and Florence fennel (anise) stems. Either would go well with the meat, but together they're ideal.
The espresso, even the decaf, is mellow and rich. The house-made desserts consist of crème brûlée, tiramisu, and gelati, including a refreshing white spumoni with chunks of pistachios, dark chocolate bits, and maraschino cherries. The ethereal tiramisu shows proper restraint and includes the correct ingredients, with ladyfinger layers soaked in brewed coffee and dark cocoa powder. The crème brûlée is honest, too, made with real vanilla and more cream than egg, its texture hinting of an aerating whip before the mixture was baked. The heavy pastries, however, are outsourced and not worth their calories.
"What do you think of this place?" Janie asked as we concluded our dinner. I started spouting about it being well above average for San Diego... "Well, for us," said Paul, "This is at least 100 times better than any Italian restaurant in El Paso."
ABOUT THE CHEF
Very little has changed at Primavera in the 16-odd years since owners Jeanette and Chris Stavros opened the restaurant. The decor has been freshened from time to time, but the same chef -- Jose ("Pepe") de la Vega -- has long presided over the kitchen, with a menu that's nearly set in stone. "We have a lot of regular customers who want to keep the menu the way it is," a waiter told us. "Probably 80 percent of the menu is the same as it was when we opened. Our customers want their favorites to always be there for them. So we have specials every night, for people who want a little change."
Chef Vega was born in Mexico. He loved hanging around the family kitchen, where his mother taught him to cook. "I loved to make different ideas for food, special things." He came to the US as a teenager 25 years ago and found work in restaurant kitchens. "I learned at an Italian restaurant on La Jolla Boulevard -- it's not there anymore -- with a friend who'd studied cooking in Italy," he says. "So when I came here [to Primavera], I already knew how to cook this cuisine."
Among the pleasures of working at Primavera, he said, is that he's free to buy fine ingredients, including fresh (never frozen) seafood, genuine prosciutto di Parma (not the domestic version), and seasonal vegetables. "I call the seafood company every day to see what I can do for a special. And I like to make different vegetables every day. Everything here is always fresh."