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Written By Scott Joseph On September 30, 2021

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Primo, the Melissa Kelly-fronted restaurant at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, has reopened after a planned shutdown for renovations. But this was more than a refresh to change carpeting and touch up the paint – it’s a major redesign of the sprawling and open space, and the result is like a whole new restaurant.

Or it would be if the menu didn’t still feature Kelly’s fine Italian cuisine with its emphasis on hyper-local sourcing. But more on that in a moment.

The redesign, by Brooklyn-based Dutch East Design, is a startling change from the previous decor. When it opened, in 2003, as a second outpost for Kelly’s original restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Primo featured dark wood accents and moody lighting. Wood beams on the ceiling and rustic chandeliers leant, along with the open kitchen, a farmhouse feel.

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The kitchen is still open but the restaurant is brighter. Walls are a freshly plastered white; the wood beams have been replaced by a dropdown grid; and the ornate chandeliers are gone and more modern fixtures and lighter-hued flooring add brilliance. Rows of stemware, backlit and sparkling, are as much a design element as they are a storage solution.

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A sunken dining area has been filled in and it’s a straight walk across to a new terrace with outdoor dining next to glassed fireplaces.

Primo21 bar

The design, which also includes arched entryways and a three-sided bar with foliage draping overhead, is meant to recall the Puglia region of Kelly’s roots.

Speaking of roots, the Primo organic garden is still there as a kitchen door source of produce, augmented by the resort’s Whisper Creek Farm and local purveyors. Kelly was using the term farm-to-table before most people even knew what that was.

My dinner guest and I chose to dine on the terrace, which has a good view of the dining room through the large windows (though it did have us longing for the more comfortable-looking seating than the wood-rod patio chairs).

Primo21 arancini

We started with appetizers of Primo Arancini and Lake Meadows Duck Confit. The rice ball was served in a pulpy bolognese and topped with feathery shredded cheese.

Primo21 duck

The duck leg quarter, deliciously crispy on the outside and wonderfully juicy inside, was served in a stew with beans and carrots. Both appetizers could have served as entrees.

Primo21 ragu

But I chose a primi for my secondi, the fettuccine with an oxtail ragu. The noodles were wider than you’d expect fettuccine to be (no complaint from me) with the meat folded in and topped with a fluffy stracciatella cheese. The oxtail had a wonderful mouthfeel.

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My companion chose the Pork Saltimbocca, a perennial Primo favorite. It was a substantial serving of lightly dredged medallions served on mashed potatoes surrounded by a moat of mushroom madeira reduction sauce. Prosciutto and spinach added a couple of layers of texture and tastes.

Longtime locals will recall that Primo’s first chef de cuisine was Kathleen Blake, who went on to open her own restaurant in downtown Orlando, Rusty Spoon, and helped expand the notion of farm-to-table further into the community. When she sold that restaurant, in 2019, Blake moved to Maine and has been working with Kelly again.

Which is a good time to mention that Orlando’s Primo does not currently have a chef de cuisine. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Blake return to once again run the Primo kitchen here?

Primo by Melissa Kelly is at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, 4040 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando (map). It is open for dinner . The phone number is 407-206-2300. Note: valet parking is validated by the restaurant.

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