In 1941, Walt Disney, of all people, chose the sensual score for his animated symphony, Fantasia. This time, the Rite of Spring was the spirit behind the pageant-like creation of the cosmos, the Earth and life itself -- capturing the primitive springtime of life both aurally and visually.
But neither master dealt with the taste, touch or smell of spring.
In 1985, Italian chef Giacomo Dressano began to master the joys of spring in another way. He opened the restaurant, Primavera (springtime) -- and 16 years later, it still delights the senses.
Primavera isn't your typical strip-mall restaurant. The exterior is a lush and colorful, sky-to-Earth profusion of Disney-like flora. A virtual rain forest of floppy striated elephant ears and spiraling vines of magenta bougainvillea provide a warm verdant welcome to all who enter. The pleasant interior, though lacking in natural greenery, is lined with bright bottles of the fruit of the vine and flower and nymph-filled prints. Even the china blossoms with delicate roses and gentle daisies.
The felicitous sound of soft, live music brushes the ear and the nose is filled with lovely culinary fragrances. Spring is very much in the air, and on the walls and on the plates.
In addition to Primavera's comprehensive menu, chef Dressano offers a daily parade of tempting and creative antipasti. Though they are presented to the table with suitable magnificence, we found it nearly impossible to remember available combinations. A printed list of the many specials (and prices) would have been helpful and appreciated.
Seafood salad ($9.95) was a colorful composition of whole coral-tinged shrimp, chopped alabaster scallops and diced jade celery, served within a leaf of violet and cream-colored radicchio. Though the seafood was cooked just right, the dish begged for a tart squeeze of lemon. The polenta dusted, soft-shell crab with shrimp ($13.95) and homemade pasta was not nearly as full-bodied as the display model and arrived without the crustaceons -- the shrimp quickly appeared amid apologies.
Bresaola Condita ($9.95), cured dried beef from the Swiss-Italian border, is presented as if the wafer-thin slices of silky ruby-red flesh were petals of a rose in full bloom. At the center of the blossom are peppery leaves of arugula and salty flakes of reggiano Parmigiano. Once again, a drop of something extra (olive oil) was needed to bring all of the wonderful flavors into greater harmony.
From the many fresh homemade selections we chose as a pasta course (shared between three of us), the fabulously satisfying Fettucine Monti e Mare ($24.95). Woodsy slivers of fresh porcini mushrooms represent the mountains while the sea is made proud by chunks of succulent shrimp and lobster brought together by a light sauce of tomato and cream. You can almost hear Stavinsky's score rising in the background.
Main courses include an excellent salad of fresh field greens and bright balsamic vinaigrette. Osso bucco ($27.95) is a supple yet mammoth hunk of tender carrot and celery braised veal shank accompanied with a surprisingly authentic risotto Milanesa (the original incorporates saffron and the veal's own rich marrow).
The halibut catch of the day ($23.95), about the size and thickness of a narrow deck of cards, was served in a surprisingly light but flavorful sauce of tart-sweet strips of sun-dried tomato, a splash of Pinot Grigio and snips of fresh chive. The accompanying warm bundle of flash-fried leeks provided a nice contrast to the firm, lean, flaky white northern fish.
The only dish that didn't delight was the dessert-like almond duck, with a berry and wine sauce (26.95). While the poultry itself was fine, cooking it under its heavy almond coating made the meat taste as if it had been steamed -- and the dark purple blueberry and Cabernet sauce would have been more appropriate on vanilla ice cream.
And don't miss Primavera's coconut ($6) -- chef Dressano's homemade gelato is a natural wonder. Rich, cold and decadent, it is the best thing that can happen when milk and coconuts dance together. Here at Primavera, the panna cotta with fresh berries ($7.50) quivers with an almost ethereal sensuality.
Though there is nothing primitive about Primavera, it does offer what Stravinsky intended: a taste of the natural wonders of life.
Enjoy it. Now, go rent Fantasia!
- Cheerful din