Primavista through the years

Primavista through the years

I have reviewed Primavista three times in the last 20 years. This was the first, from 1996. The reviews have a certain consistency to them, which I hope speaks more to the consistency of the restaurant, not to a lack of creative thought from me.

From 1996:

My parents-in-law were in town a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time in our relationship, I took them out to dinner. How nice that I was planning to review Primavista.

Where better to impress them than high up on a hill with a city's-your-oyster view. Plate-glass windows from floor to ceiling frame the scene. Downtown, off in the distance like the Emerald City, is put in perspective with the river meandering to the right and the mouth of the Mill Creek Valley in front. The Queen's Tower building, where the restaurant occupies the first floor, is the lone upscale spot in the Price Hill neighborhood.

I had anticipated a decor sleek and swanky to go with the smashing view, but the restaurant's look is rustic: rough, white-painted plank and stone walls, farmhouse chairs, heavy antique dressers. Nevertheless, Primavista is full of people dressed up and celebrating one thing or another. With beautifully cooked Italian food that's special-occasion but familiar and easy to like, Primavista lives up to its reputation as a perennial "best" among Cincinnati restaurants.

The Salmone in Sacco ($18.95) typifies the cooking style. A thick salmon fillet is baked in a paper bag and served on top of linguine tangled with roasted artichokes, fennel, peppers and mushrooms. Homey, but homey as done by a chef.

The antipasto assortment ($8.95) has elevated rustic flavors. Along with simple salami, cheese, black olives and tomato slices, there is a spiral of mozzarella with pungent pesto and a lovely white bean, shrimp and smoked mussel salad. I vote for putting the salad on the menu by itself.

I enjoyed the carpaccio parmigiano ($7.95) - thin slices of raw beef with nutty fresh parmesan, capers and hearts of palm adding to the sweet freshness. Mussels Livornese ($6.95) are another perfectly done starter. If you can handle a richer appetizer, salsiccia al marsala ($5.50) is an unusual treatment for sausage. Mixed with mushrooms, it's on toast with a rich marsala sauce.

The only clunker in first courses was the zuppa di dateri ($2.50 a cup, $3.25 a bowl), a tired seafood chowder. There's another drawback at the beginning of the meal.

Roasted garlic and garlic puree are served to go on Italian bread, but the bread isn't up to it. A few years ago, it was hard to get anything but dry, crackly Italian bread, but now there's plenty of good, chewy European bread to choose from.

Among the entrees, Pollo perfetto ($15.50) is perfectly cooked, simply served with angel hair and peppers in balsamic vinegar. The green beans on the side are bright green and crunchy. Scallopine alla Fabbio ($18.95) (That's fabbio, not Fabio - no Italian beefcake here) is one of three veal scallop dishes. It's in a delicious wine sauce with fennel and artichoke hearts.

Adorable little lamb chops ($21.95) are succulent in their herb crust, with mustard sauce on the side - not a trace of grease or gristle. Osso bucco ($18.95) would be the perfect signature dish for this restaurant but, unfortunately, it is the only entree that didn't measure up. The sauce is too rich, with no trace of the light lemony flavor that should distinguish it, and the veal shanks just aren't as meltingly tender as they can be.

A meal like this certainly calls for a leisurely pace, but there was a little too much time between courses. We had the same excellent waiter both visits. On a packed Saturday, he was polite and efficient; on Tuesday, which was election night, he was friendly and even kept us informed on voting results.

The Primavista wine list is divided into sections by wine styles, with suggestions for matching wine to the menu. The selection of wines by the glass is small, but there are rotating wine specials by the glass or bottle. Sorbet seems like a good choice after a big meal. The black raspberry ($1.95) is light and refreshing. But if you're here to celebrate, you'll want something more. I recommend the Latte alla portughese ($3.25), a creamy custard with a caramel sauce, or the three scoops of gelato in a pastry cup ($4.50). The torta di ciocolata ($4.25) is gorgeous and looks rich, but isn't very chocolatey.

My second dinner here was with a pregnant friend, on one of her last occasions to eat out without having to worry about how the sitter is doing. No reason to wait for an occasion any more special than that.

From 2003:

Venerable Primavista makes primo Italian

By Polly Campbell

Is there any restaurant cuisine more useful or versatile than Italian? It's a category that includes some of the area's oldest (Scotti's), most home-town (LaRosa's) expensive (Boca), trendiest (Via Vite) and conservative but photogenic (Pompilio's).

Primavista, on the edge of East Price Hill, must owe its long success to a combination of all of the above. While its menu and service are in the fine-dining category, it's also a great place for a table of friends to sit down to big plates of spaghetti and delicious veal meatballs. In business for almost 20 years, Primavista is still relevant, as the menu is freshened from the deep well of Italian food, both modern and classic.

And there's the skyline view. Other restaurants have great views, but none are quite as sweeping as this. From every table, you can see trains crossing the Ohio River, the far-away towers of Mount Adams and the castle-like profile of Hughes High School. (The new convention center sign spells out "Cincinnati" in case you forget where you are.)

The dining room has recently been redone, though new colors and art haven't changed its essential characteristic: It's cozy and a little quirky. There's a medieval-like door guarding the dining room, which is furnished with antiques, silk flowers and tables topped with white cloths under glass.

We started with the wonderful creamy roasted garlic that's set on the table along with bread and butter – trendy and eye-opening in the 1990s, now it's just simply delicious. We all loved the ravioli starter ($7.99); square pasta filled with spinach and Gorgonzola is topped with a crunchy walnut pesto and slivered basil. Spinach salad ($5.99) gets a subtle Italian twist with warm anchovy-bacon dressing.

I ordered the risotto al funghi ($16.99). It takes an extra half hour or so to prepare, but we never felt neglected by the two professional servers who looked after us. Arriving in a big bowl, unapologetically brown, the risotto is delicious: creamy, absolutely stuffed with earthy and aromatic mushrooms, and far too much to finish. It would be a nice thing to order for the table and share as a second course.

There is a large selection of veal scallopini. My friend ordered saltimbocca ($25.99), a thin scallop of veal scented with sage and enriched with prosciutto. The melted fontina cheese that topped it was wonderful when warm, a bit much as it cooled. The accompanying green beans were crisply cooked and bright.

How do you say pièce de rèsistance in Italian? That's what I'd call the fettuccine con aragosta ($27.99). Precisely-cooked ribbon pasta is tangled with generous chunks of lobster and thinly-sliced vegetables and piled neatly in a pyramid. Its sauce carried the flavors with plenty of cream, but was still light and silken.

Primavista lists a nice selection of desserts and after-dinner drinks. Try the perfectly done tiramisu and linger – the setting invites it.

From 2008:

Primavista cozy side of fine dining

Polly Campbell

The door that leads to Primavista's dining room looks like it might open on a cozy cellar room. The studded dark wood suggests an old English theme. The hallway confirms the impression with its dark antique furniture. But the hall leads to a dining room with one wall of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and another of mirrors that reflect the spectacular view of downtown Cincinnati off in the distance.

It's Primavista's unique combination of cozy and expansive.

On a recent holiday-season evening, the coziness was accentuated by the good feeling of families and groups out for a special meal - couples sharing orders of mussels, dressed-up kids eating plates of wonderful pasta and meatballs, their elders lingering over the wine list. There was a nice hum, with the view just a backdrop.

People may come first to see the city from atop Price Hill, but the reason the dining room was full is that Primavista has been serving good Italian food consistently for a long time. It is the kind of restaurant of which people say, "I've never had a bad meal."

No matter what the decor says, the menu is classic Italian, on the conservative side but not boring. It has not been influenced by the authentic revisionism that leads to Tuscan peasant stews nor the adventurousness of fusion dishes with unfamiliar ingredients. Chef Chris Prince has been in partnership with owners Joan and Frank Lenkerd for 10 years, and they seem to have a firm grasp on what works.

Appetizers include an exemplary carpaccio ($9.95), served with curls of aged Parmesan to set off the sweetness of the raw beef; and a pile of fairly standard golden fried calamari ($7.25) with marinara sauce for dipping. Mozzarella con Pomodoro ($6.95) nicely combines the flavors of milky fresh cheese, rolled around pesto and mushrooms, with a mildly hot, thick pepper sauce.

Salads are included with entrees, and so is bread with the roasted garlic puree that has become a signature of the restaurant. Its characteristic aroma is unmistakable when you open the front door.

Two of the best entrees were fish. I loved the pine-nut encrusted salmon ($24.95) with pesto-sauced linguine as much for the lovely pink and green color combination as for the thick and moist filet and the creamy sauce with the summery taste of pesto.

The sea bass with lobster ($29.95) showcases the wonderful way that the mild fish can absorb butter, making this a rich (but low-carb) meal. This is not a spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of restaurant, but that is on the menu ($12.95) and I ordered it for research. It turned out to be absolutely delicious. The spaghetti is swirled upward into a classic pyramid, and three huge meatballs hold down the corners. The meatballs are of delicately flavored veal, the sauce is hearty but fresh, and it's crowned with fresh basil.

Saltimbocca ($25.95) is just one of several veal scaloppine dishes. It has the requisite fresh sage leaves sandwiched between the veal, prosciutto and maybe just a little too much cheese.

Our servers on two evenings were both meticulous. They checked back with us exactly once per course, rid the table of every possible crumb and drip and offered more wine and water as soon as needed. But good service also extended to having a coat check, the lovely phone manners of the reservationist and a tableside visit from the owner.

You might not care about anything else your server does, as long as he or she brings you latte ala Portoghese ($5.95) or Spuma di Gianduia ($5.95) for dessert. The first is a panna cotta with a rich caramel sauce, the second a slice of hazelnut chocolate mousse surrounded by chopped hazelnuts, preserved cherries and vanilla sauce.

Finishing a meal with one of these, with the city laid out below you, is certainly among Cincinnati's best dining experiences.

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