Primo for the People
Stromboli Under a Crystal Chandelier
Eating a stromboli at new First Hill pizzeria Primo is great in at least 17 ways. A stromboli is a calzone-style pocket of deliciousness that you don't see enough of around here, one with the tomato sauce served on the side. Wikipedia reports that stromboli is an American thing, thought to be named after a 1950 movie of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman; the movie is named after a small lump of a volcanic island off Sicily, one that's always steaming; the island's name is a bastardization of the ancient Greek strongule, meaning round, swelling form.
The stromboli at Primo is hot and pillowy—if you've been out in the cold, just picking it up with both hands is a pleasure. (You might be tempted to hold it, like a toasty compress, to your face.) The exterior is browned beautifully, with almost-scorched spots; its dough is made from one of the owners' recipes. The bread envelope is remarkably unheavy, filling without being dense, with air pockets. Inside, as with a calzone, the mozzarella stays pliant longer than on top of a pizza, warm and stretchy. The tomato sauce becomes a condiment, bright and acidic and topical instead of cooked boringly within, and you can apply as much or as little as you like, or leave it off some bites entirely. (Because I am a sauce control freak—usually I want more, but not too much more—stromboli has a place in my heart equal to pizza.) The sauce at Primo comes in a little footed silvertone dish, and the stromboli comes on a white paper doily, stuffed with your choice of three goodnesses from the 29 pizza toppings on offer. It's cheap—$6.95 ($5 at lunch/happy hour)—and big enough to fill up any average human, though you should really get a Caesar salad (of the unelevated chopped- romaine style, with, alas, no whole anchovies available, but with nice, slightly spicy dressing, good croutons, and shavings of Parmesan instead of powder/pellets/shreds).
Then there's this fact: Primo is located in the most beautiful room in town. It is the space that for eons housed Geneva (aka, previously, Reiner's), which was a stuffy, formal spot with unremarkable but expensive continental cuisine (my memory conjured only an enormous floral arrangement, a stifled feeling, and the world's most gorgeous ceiling). After Geneva, it was very briefly (per a trusted source) a Terrible Italian Place; then it was Beam's, which set off bad-restaurant radar in such a repellent way, it practically closed before it opened.
The building—across from Town Hall, down the block a little—was built in 1928, and the Primo spot is set back from the street, with an awning leading to a glass door marked with a gilt cursive P. Rumor has it that back in the day, the room was a hotel lobby or, alternately, a tearoom for apartments above. It's also said that the great old Seattle department store Frederick & Nelson housed its staff in the building, and that the Primo room was a sort of in-house canteen known as the Lowell Diner.
The room is a genteel, small-scale work of grandeur. The ceiling in its center is domed, the plaster not perfectly smooth. A chandelier has a swoop of sparkling strands, a filigreed border, then what looks like an upside-down crystal cake; at night, it casts a glowing snowflake upward. The dark woodwork is quietly magnificent, with subtle garlands and medallions and trophies and foliage. There are octagonal pillars and curlicues of ironwork. Candles are lit, day and night, and only a few mirrors hang on the walls; the new owners installed a simple bar (with two flat-screens, very unfortunately), plain black chairs, plain wood tables. Even the bathrooms—up a slanting hallway, with marble sinks and antique faucets—are a joy.
The new owners are local guys. Max Borthwick, who opened Toi downtown (with his mother as the chef) then Suite 410 (an early adopter of the craft cocktail), went to O'Dea High School, mere blocks away; Larry Mar is a Garfield alum (the crust recipe is his). They've been friends since they were 2 years old; they grew up across the alley from each other on Capitol Hill. While their supplier is a cut above Sysco (and you can taste it), they're not doing the local/organic/etc. thing, and they didn't import a brick oven (or a pizzaiolo) from Italy.
"We've just got some good, experienced pizza makers," Borthwick says by phone. "We just wanted to make the place as basic as possible—really good product at an affordable price, given the neighborhood and the economy."
They've succeeded with the stromboli and with the pie, which is neither Chicago-thick nor New York–thin but somewhere in between; the ingredients taste fresh, the crust is cooked correctly. Pastas are by-the-book Italian American, but better than most. Add chicken to the creamy pesto gnocchi, and you'll taste extra garlic, too; meatballs are porky, and the tomato sauce is almost-upscale, chunky and tasty and bright red. Prices range from $9.95 to $11.95 for pasta, and big pizzas top out around $20. One complaint (besides the TVs): The wine list is short, and the house wines skew sweet (which would be easy to fix without going above the current $5 a glass). Primo does, however, make a very cold, very dry martini.
As for the service, it's almost alarmingly friendly. One night, a server named Ashley introduced herself and shook our hands, later extolling (among other things) the virtues of the pesto gnocchi. When I ordered it, she gave me a high five. It was odd but awesome, like eating a really good stromboli in Seattle's most elegant room.