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Prima Ristorante

Same as it ever was-only better


It’s hard to decide where to start when every appetizer on the menu sounds delicious. There’s a plate of cured meats; melon with prosciutto; and a spinach salad with cherries, Gorgonzola, and walnuts.

My companion and I finally choose a puffy goat-cheese-and-prosciutto beignet and the roasted peppers stuffed with braised, shredded tuna. At the touch of a knife, lightly herbed cheese oozes out of the beignet onto a ruffled tissue of prosciutto and into a puddle of pureed red pepper. And the stuffed peppers are filled with a marvelous concoction of raisins, pine nuts, and delectable tuna conservato. A couple of Italian white wines from Campania—a Falanghina from San Gregorio and a Macchialupa Fiano di Avellino—accompany both dishes nicely.

It’s a first course to remember, and a good indication of what’s to come as we experience a meal at the "new" Prima in Walnut Creek.

Chef Peter Chastain and wine director John Rittmaster purchased Prima Ristorante from former owners Michael and Janet Verlander last year. Chastain had already been in charge of the kitchen for six years; Rittmaster has guided the wine program for even longer. But by buying the restaurant, they were taking on the challenge of managing everything from choosing the right glassware to computer software conversions.

Diablo decided to revisit the restaurant once the effects of the transition could be completely appreciated, and what we found is that quality is just as high if not higher than before. The two new owners say their goal as they took over was to set what Chastain calls a "more unwavering standard."

That standard is clear the moment you tune into Prima’s waitstaff at work. The servers glide through the room, arms heavily laden, executing a quick yet graceful pas de deux each time they meet and pass. An empty wineglass vanishes unnoticed and is secreted behind a waiter’s back as he answers questions at the adjoining table. Attentive yet respectful, discreet yet knowledgeable: This is the real deal—and we haven’t even ordered our second course yet.

The menu is not too long—always a good sign. Encyclopedic lists invariably mean the kitchen has made too many things in advance. Yet with five choices under paste e risotto and five more secondi piatti, there is plenty of variety. Dishes make beautiful use of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and at the same time showcase artisanal Italian products.

Our waiter recommends a German Riesling to accompany our risotto with peaches, pancetta, and Gorgonzola. His suggestion is right on target; the wine perfectly complements the bright flavors in the dish. Sweet hunks of peach swim in the velvety rice, contrasting with crisp bits of pancetta. The Gorgonzola, easily an aggressive flavor, remains a demure background note. The preparation is artful, and the ingredients could not be of higher quality.

Chastain says everyone in the kitchen is committed to that quality, including and perhaps especially chef de cuisine Oscar Patlan. "I would get into a fight with Oscar if I bought less than outstanding ingredients," Chastain says. In fact, Chastain says he has just sent back a shipment of fish that wasn’t perfect. He also says the kitchen staff tastes every melon before serving it.

A glance around the room during our meal reveals little change in the decor. Two cooks work the brick oven near the podium in the ochre-walled forno room; light jazz tinkles by the bar. Diners seated in the loggia, a covered porch on the front of the restaurant, look out at passers-by on Main Street. A balding man who could be called Mr. Authority scans the room. Everything—from his bearing to his snappy suit—breathes manager; he is where the buck stops. Clearly, professionalism has not fallen by the wayside since the restaurant became employee owned.

After we order our entrées and two new wines, a waiter arrives with a glass of red and an apology. The wine he recommended to accompany my entrée is no longer available. Would I mind a Brunello? He doesn’t know I’d drink a Brunello with popcorn, but it’s a happy match for my grilled pork chop.

The brilliant orange of a braised apricot splashes across the meat’s deep brown, enhancing its appearance, just as the fruit’s tart flavor balances the pork’s richness. The bitterness of broccoli rabe acts as a perfect foil. Meanwhile, my dinner partner is rolling his eyes in delight over his crisp pan-roasted salmon with braised fennel, artichokes, and tomatoes. The food, we declare, is better than ever.

It is obvious that Prima is all about flawless products in simple preparations. "God gave us food; and the devil gave us cooks," says Chastain, quoting his Italian grandfather. "Our style of cooking is an act of stewardship."

Contact: 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, www.primaristorante.com  

Hours: Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily

PrIce: Appetizers $5–$16, entrées $25-$36

Alcohol: Full bar

at a glance

What makes it special: Tastier food than ever and more than 1,600 wines

The space: The forno room hosts live jazz Thursday through Saturday; the quiet enoteca room showcases bottles of reserve wine; the loggia, with its barrel roof and floor-to-ceiling windows, feels bright and airy.

What to order: Any kind of risotto, anything with fruit, incredible Italian wine, truffles in winter

When to go: A quiet lunch with friends, a business lunch with associates, a romantic dinner with someone special, a fun outing with family and friends

Bonus: Any table in the dining room can become the "Chef’s Table" when you let chef Peter Chastain create a multicourse meal tailored exclusively to your taste.

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