Maybe she’s not truly the OG of farm to table dining but with 30 years of culinary experience under her belt, 2 James Beard Awards and so much more on her resume, I’ll gladly give Chef Melissa Kelly that title too. After taking a short drive from Phoenix down to Tucson, the whole family pulled up to the sprawling JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. Resting on the edge of fantastic hiking trails and in the midst of a quiet landscape is the gorgeous resort, complete with a lazy river and water slide. After unpacking in our suite, I headed down to Primo, Chef Kelly’s restaurant inside the JW Marriott to meet with the Chef.
Chef Kelly has three Primo restaurants, her original location is in Maine, this one she opened in 2000. What started as a small concept of creating dishes around high quality ingredients that she could get from her garden or locally, has now become a huge space filled with pigs, chickens, ducks and so much produce. She told me that 80% of the ingredients come from the farm. This is what JW Marriott was looking for when they asked her to open up the same concept inside their Florida location. Chef Kelly was skeptical back then and gave them a list of things she would need in order to open the location. Chef expected that the list would be too much and they wouldn’t agree to it. To her surprise they gave her everything she wanted and with that, she set off to open Primo again.
After the success of the Florida location, the Tucson JW Marriott was the final destination and one that felt like Italy and right for Primo, as Kelly explains. “A lot of the landscape is similar to the places I visit in Italy and I knew when I visited Tucson that this would be a great addition.” She was correct and Primo actually helped to grow the food scene in Tucson. When they first opened Primo, Tucson didn’t have much a culinary scene. Chef Kelly went around to the local vendors and has helped them grow into larger producers with the ingredients she sources from them. Many of those vendors now provide for other restaurants around Tucson and we can all agree that the food scene down there has grown with leaps and bounds.
I’ll get into the food and our dining experience but I want to mention one last thing about Chef Kelly. Chef Kelly has such a calm demeanor, it’s a change from what I’m use to seeing which is high strung and stressed out Chefs. Not only could I sense her passion and her love for what she does but I could envision her calmly working in Maine on her farm and soaking in everything she does and believes in, as that energy translates into what we get on the plate.
So much from the restaurant’s menu is sourced locally and the items that aren’t, Chef Kelly has a relationship with. She knows what goes on with the product and how it is produced. The garden they have outside is growing and expanding and she’s even helped the resort to reduce their waste, which is a huge accomplishment in my mind. As I sat down at the table with my family, we ordered a few appetizers to start the charcuterie was presented with Chef’s selection of cured meats, artisan cheeses, marinated olives, house pickled vegetables, grissini and whole grain mustard. The crab cake was one of my favorite starters and so was the fresh bacon. The pig had recently come into their possession and they had made the bacon. My son let us know that he will no longer eat any bacon unless it tastes like Chef Kelly’s, I guess he’ll never be eating bacon again.
The pastas are all made in house, so how could I not give one a try. The cavatelli with wild mushrooms also had sherried chicken, spinach and mushroom brodo, it was nice and light and the color made it feel bright and fresh.
My husband ordered the Niman Ranch Pork “Saltimbocca” with the most spectacular roasted garlic mashed potato and a few bites of spinach and prosciutto, topped with a mushroom sage jus. I ordered the duck, which came out resting on a small bed of grains and was paired with mushrooms and a few other fresh veggies.
Although it was suggested I try the zeppole, I couldn’t resist the call to have the cannoli Siciliana. These cannolis were hand-rolled filled with sweet ricotta and then dipped in pistachio and chocolate, served with Amarena cherries. It was like crispy clouds of heaven entering my mouth, if you only order one dessert, I recommend this be it. We also tried the budino, which was a warm chocolate cake with a decadent mint stracciatella gelato and my son got to eat the house made mango sorbet.
Thank you again to Chef Kelly and the entire resort staff for an exquisite experience, we can’t wait to come back again for another staycation!
3800 W. Starr Pass Boulevard
Tucson, Arizona 85745
Thanks again to JW Marriott Tucson for hosting us for the day and including our meals. Although the stay was hosted, the opinions are all mine!