GREAT BEND — There’s a new Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Fort Drum.
Primo’s Italian Restaurant is located on Route 26 a stone’s throw from Route 3 in the hamlet of Great Bend. It’s a revamped pizzeria now offering “Fine Dining Italian Style.” New owner Fred Ingo has created a full-fledged sit-down restaurant, offering appetizers and salads, steak, seafood and chicken dinners and, of course, pizza and Italian specialties.
The free-standing building offers plenty of parking, and on the Friday night we were there, the parking lot was packed. As we entered the front door we were greeted at the hostess station. We got the feeling that we’d just walked in the back door of the kitchen, because right there was the large cooking area in all its brightly lit stainless steel glory. A slew of cooks were working the stoves and ovens and running around like the restaurant was getting slammed.
Lo and behold, as we entered the separate dining area, we could see that it was mobbed. There was a huge party in the center of the room — had to be at least 25 people gathered around a long table. Tables and booths around the perimeter of the room were filled with hungry patrons as well.
Pretty good for a place that’s only been open for two months, we thought.
And an owner with no prior restaurant experience.
The softly lit dining room is quaint and comfortable. The tables are dressed with linens for dinner service. Opposite our table was a nonfunctioning but soon-to-be-operational service bar (the restaurant is awaiting its liquor license). No stools and no TVs. Good move.
The menu, despite being presented in a big leather binder, is really quite compact and manageable. And even though the restaurant was a little crazy, our server was OK letting us put an appetizer order in first.
We chose bruschetta bread ($6.99), fried goat cheese ($8.99) and a small pizza with pepperoni, sausage and black olives ($11.79).
The bruschetta was very tasty, made with what seemed like a thick-crust Sicilian pizza shell topped with fresh tomatoes and basil, red onion, kalamata olives and cheese, then baked, cut into squares and served with a side of house marinara.
The marinara went untouched because the fresh flavors of the toppings were great by themselves. There was a nice crunch to the thick but light and airy crust.
A small fritter of goat cheese about the size of a fat sliver dollar (does anyone remember what a silver dollar is?) was rolled in panko breadcrumbs and placed in the center of a rimmed soup bowl that contained a decent amount of spicy marinara sauce.
It was served with olive bread crostini, beautiful bread that we were told is made there (well, probably baked there, not made from scratch). But that didn’t matter — it was very good. The sauce had just the right amount of heat and was tamed by the mild, creamy goat cheese.
Next up, the pizza — presented and served on a cool wire stand placed in the center of the table. It was nothing special, especially after the light, crispy bruschetta we’d just eaten. Kind of like drinking a Cabernet then switching to a Merlot.
Complimentary house salads were fresh out of a bag: iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots and cabbage fortified with a few cherry tomatoes and some cucumber. Zesty house-made balsamic and jammy raspberry vinaigrettes outshined the premixed salad blend.
For entrees, chicken choices are limited to chicken Parm, chicken Francaise or the one we chose with Utica origins, chicken riggies ($14.99).
It was a huge portion — al dente rigatoni pasta tossed with large strips of tender chicken, red and green bell peppers (rather than traditional spicy cherry peppers), onion and garlic and a spicy red sauce.
“The sauce was wonderful, with the same kind of spice that would be expected from Mom’s,” my Italian friend later proclaimed. “The chicken was tender without being mushy; the macaroni was cooked to perfection.” Leftovers were just as good warmed up for lunch the next day, he reported.
The seafood category offers shrimp scampi, haddock francaise or crab-stuffed haddock ($19.99), which we ordered.
It arrived as a perfectly round mound, which made us suspect that it may have been a frozen product from their restaurant supplier — you know, like the one you get at those mega wedding receptions? The menu says otherwise, so we deferred to that.
It sure was good. A delightful light lemon-butter sauce really accented the fish well. A side of broccoli was cooked a little more than we would have liked.
There were lots of Italian specialties to choose from: lasagna, baked rigatoni or cavatelli, gnocchi, homemade ravioli and manicotti, pasta a la vodka and fettuccini Alfredo.
We went with the manicotti ($10.99) and customized it with a side of sausage ($1.99). A premade pasta shell (rather than a homemade crepe) was stuffed with ricotta, covered with Primo’s own marinara sauce and finished with lots of melted mozzarella. Predictably good.
The sausage was one of our favorites, Gianelli brand, made in Syracuse and readily available in grocery stores.
Finally, we ordered one of my favorites (if it’s done right), linguini with white clam sauce. ($12.49).
The menu specifies fettuccini, but we were relieved to have it served with the slightly thinner linguini. The clams, however, of the canned variety, were disappointing, lacking true clam flavor and maybe even picking up a bit of a metallic taste from the can.
The sauce could have saved the day, but it didn’t. It was a little bitter, as well. Needed more garlic and more clam juice or clam base. Leftovers did not leave the building.
Desserts consist of cheesecake, tiramisu or cannolis. After finding out that they were all commercial restaurant supplier confections, we declined. Not that they would have been bad, necessarily, but we’ve had them in a dozen other restaurants and we knew exactly what we would have gotten.
Perhaps when things settle down they’ll be able to offer at least one dessert crafted in that large kitchen with the small army of cooks.
Dinner for four at Primo’s came to $95.06 before tip.
Our server was knowledgeable and polite and kept the table well manicured, but was overly persistent when it came to ordering our entrees (perhaps in an effort to get us in before the big party). She probably thought she was doing us a favor, but we told her from the start, we were there for the duration and weren’t concerned how long things took.
The menu cries out for a nice bottle of wine. Wouldn’t you think the paper shufflers at the state Liquor Authority would be able to issue liquor licenses in a timelier manner?
It was great to see both of the owners, Fred and Carol Ingo, working the floor on a busy weekend night. The restaurant was well-staffed, maybe even overstaffed, from what we observed. The owners will need to keep a close eye on labor costs if the venture is to be profitable and successful.
Primo’s is one of very few “fine dining” family restaurants on the Carthage side of Fort Drum. They serve lunch as well as dinner and are open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Monday.
Oh, and that big party taking up most of the room didn’t seem to interfere with food coming out to other tables in a timely fashion. And we got to listen to a retirement speech for free.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: email@example.com.
Primo’s Italian Restaurant
25044 County Route 47
Great Bend, N.Y.
A new Italian “fine dining” family restaurant on the outskirts of Fort Drum.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
APPETIZER PICK: Bruschetta bread
ENTRÉE PICKS: Chicken riggies, crab-stuffed haddock
RATING: 3-1/2 forks