Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: Dining at Primo is an experience.
We recently celebrated eight years of wedded bliss, and decided that dining at Bruce Boggartz’s newest endeavor would be worth an anniversary dinner. Fun anecdote before we begin: Bruce used to work with my Dad way back when I was *holds hand out* JUST THIS BIG! They both got their culinary start at a Knoxville staple, The Copper Cellar. It’s really amazing to see just how far Bruce has come since the good ol’ days of chopping onions and washing dishes, to being one of the most respected and innovative chefs Knoxville has to offer.
Primo aims to bring an atmosphere of upscale sophistication to Knoxville’s resurgent downtown. How often do you get to dine in the sky with 270 degree views of the downtown Knoxville skyline? Nestled in the 5th floor of Knoxville’s iconic Sunsphere, the view & food make for an evening like no other. Sinatra piped through the speakers, chic decor, and a laid-back atmosphere make this a unique experience. In addition, a chef with a BIG personality who loves to spend time with his patrons. Bruce can often be found out in the dining room chatting up diners, making menu recommendations, telling fun stories or even getting someone a sample of port to go along with dessert. This all adds to the uniqueness of the experience. No where else in Knoxville offers this type of dining atmosphere.
The menu offers several courses that are prepared to order and brought out as soon as they are done. In other words, plan on being here a while. This restaurant was designed for patrons to enjoy a slower pace, and savor each dish as they arrive. You don’t have to select something from every course, but we’d recommend doing so to enjoy the variety of the menu. Primo has crafted a fairly large selection so you can enjoy all different walks of Italy. Book yourself a table early enough to watch the sunset go down as you prepare for dessert and an after-dinner glass of port (like we did). This is what I mean by saying it is an experience. It’s more than a simple restaurant, it’s an event. It’s an evening.
Stepping out of the elevator, a massive group style table greets you along with the sparkling view. To the right will be the bar area with bar top seating and modern love seats facing the skyline, where the food will be served from behind you so as not to disturb your view.
I suggest sitting on this side of the restaurant if you want a cozy experience and you want to enjoy the sunset.
The other side of the restaurant has more traditional seating with tables for two up to eight. Plenty of space for couples and groups!
Yes yes, but what about the food?!?!
For starters, the server brought us a plate of garlic Parmesan biscuits with butter. These were a flavor bomb. There’s some serious garlic and cheese flavor going on here. The texture was a nice cross between a biscuit and a soft roll. We both gobbled up our respective bread and patiently waited for the first course.
We opted to try three appetizers: the Fritto Misto, the Sausage-Stuffed Mushrooms, & the Meatballs (keep in mind the pictures below are for small portions so they are not indicative of the true portion size).
When Bruce told us that they grind their own sausage in-house, it was all the convincing I needed to sample the stuffed mushrooms and meatballs. The mushrooms were filled with housemade sausage and broiled off to perfection. They were perfectly crunchy on top, while the sausage remained tender.
The meatballs were covered in a healthy blanket of red sauce and to judge an Italian restaurant, their sauce needs to be on point. I’m pleased to say that Primo’s marinara is spot-on. Just enough sweetness to balance the acidity, and a slight warmth that leaves a pleasant lingering aftertaste.
But the real star of the Antipasti menu? The Fritto Misto. That day it included asparagus, scallops (one of my favorite things ever) and big ol’ gulf shrimp. This is a menu item that changes daily with whatever fresh produce and seafood is available. Lightly battered and fried, then served with pepperoncini, broiled tomatoes, olives & capers, this dish brought it home with big Mediterranean flavors all perfectly cooked. The batter soaks up the briny, salty juices of the olives & peppers and pairs brilliantly with the seafood. We cleaned all three of our small plates in no time. The fun was just beginning.
This “middle” course is where you will find the pasta selections at Primo. As is traditional with Italian cuisine, the pasta is often an appetizer or middle course and not the full entree, but of course they offer full size and half size portions here so you can enjoy a larger portion as your main course. We loved this flexibility here and this is something you will often see at Italian restaurants in bigger cities.
At the recommendation of our server, Kara chose the cannelloni. It is one of the most unique things on the menu and clearly a popular item because they only had ONE left. Shredded duck confit, ricotta, & caramelized onions all stuffed into a freshly made cannelloni. This is a dish where Bruce’s risk taking pays off. It’s different, but fun and delicious.
You best believe I had my heart set on the Dolce Patata Gnocchi. House-made sweet potato gnocchi, prosecco poached pears, black walnuts all drenched in a gorgonzola cream sauce made this…dare I say, the best gnocchi dish I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some good gnocchi. It was very rich, so I was grateful for the half portion (even if I did clean my bowl).
Now it was time for the star of the evening. The main course. Let me make one thing perfectly clear; you will be taking food home. The portions are massive. The thriftiness in me is always pleased when I can stretch a meal into leftovers. Not to mention, you should already be nearing full if you’ve partaken in the menu properly up to this point.
Kara opted for the Pork Chop Visuvio, which the menu describes as “cacciatore all grown up”. We feel that’s an accurate description. Don’t pass up this pork chop – it was outstanding. A HUGE lightly fried pork chop on top of a bed of creamy polenta is smothered with a delicious tomato sauce, pancetta, mushrooms and artichokes. And the chop itself was fall off the bone tender. This dish embodies Northern Italian cuisine with big, bold flavors that pair so well together! Kara is not usually a fan of cacciatore, but this dish may have changed her mind!
I dared myself to try their pride and joy, the Lamb Porchetta. “Italian turducken” is what the menu says. A leg of lamb, stuffed with garlic, herbs, & pork sausage, then it gets wrapped in pork belly and slow roasted for 5 hours. Here are my thoughts, the porchetta is overwhelming. It is decadently rich in fatty jus flavor and delectably tender. You’ll swear it off after six bites or so because it is such a heavy hitter. But as the plate stares up at you, you’ll find yourself nibbling more and more. You can’t stay away. I did find the two spears of broccoli casually thrown on top a bit comical. You’re order something like this and then the kitchen realizes they should put some green stuff on your plate somewhere. Yeah, I ate it…not just because I love broccoli but mostly so I could feel better about myself. As a bonus, they serve it over a bed of browned potatoes. Because what better vessel to soak up all those meat drippings than a nice, crispy skinned potato?
We also ordered one side item; the mushroom risotto. This was the only dish we didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy. The flavor was too mushroom-y for Kara, and while the rice was al dente, the consistency seemed a little off. Now, I offer that criticism with a caveat that we are BIG risotto snobs. It’s a regular go to dish for when we’re feeling fancy at home. I still polished it off at lunch the next day so…it was clearly still pretty tasty.
There is no set dessert menu at Primo as the selection changes on season, mood, etc. Though, I’d wager a guess that some version of Tiramisu IS offered everyday. Being the picky people we are, we sampled all 3 that they had to offer that night.
Let’s talk about what you’re seeing above. Left > Right we have; Amaretto Tart, Red Wine Chocolate Mousse (topped with blood orange sorbet), and Chocolate Kahlua tiramisu. I LOVE me a good tiramisu and this one did not disappoint. I loved the boozy-spiked flavor and the mini-chocolate chips added the perfect amount of crunch in contrast to the Kahlua soaked ladyfingers. The Amaretto Tart was Kara’s favorite dessert. It was essentially an almondy twist on pecan pie. The filling was creamy and delicious chock full of almonds and almond flavor topped with vanilla gelato. A perfectly Italian take on classic pie.
Where to Park
You can opt for their valet parking at the base of the sunsphere for $6. You can park for free elsewhere, likely at the State Street garage and walk across the pedestrian bridge that connects to the convention center, but the valet is the closest you’ll get, and they will have your car ready by the time you ride the elevator back down. Makes life a lot easier when you’ve stuffed yourself full of Porcetta & Tiramisu and may find walking difficult.
Suggestions for improvement
Plating is always a challenge with Italian food. Pasta slides, sauces run, etc. We’ve been following Primo since they first showed up on Facebook and have noticed a substantial improvement in plating. Social media is so image driven these days, a fine-dining establishment such as this needs to make sure their plating game is consistently top-notch.
The restrooms are pretty neat. A very “airplane bathroom” feel, except you can actually move around. But the men’s restroom had a noticeably absent mirror. Guys need to check their hair, teeth, etc. as well. Especially if they are on a hot date and trying to impress.
The wine. For an Italian restaurant, the wine list left me wanting. For a restaurant at this price point, and the experience they are trying to create, a bigger & better wine list would be an improvement. As would training the wait staff in wine knowledge. It seems a wasted opportunity to have such bold & delicious Italian flavors and no one who could really answer “What’s a good wine to pair with that?” I’m not sure Knoxville is ever the sort of town that would have a restaurant with a full-time sommelier, but training the wait staff is a great place to start. Now, that being said…Bruce did let me sample a couple of different ports to choose for the dessert course.
Bruce has always been passionate about food. That much is clear in his restaurants. Worth mentioning he’s probably one of the only chefs who takes the time to come out and chat with each table, while soliciting their feedback. Don’t be surprised if he jovially pops by your table to ask how your evening is going. If nothing else, it adds an element of intimacy. To know that he’s not back there just slinging dishes together, but that he wants nothing more than to know you’re enjoying his food. And the service was top-notch. Attentive and friendly. A restaurant is only as good as it’s wait staff and everyone here did a great job. Primo is a welcome addition to a downtown that is finally becoming a destination and not just a drive-through. It’s a great spot for a date night, a celebration, a romantic evening, or sunset cocktails.In our opinion, Primo is totally worth it, because there’s nothing else like it Knoxville.
Thanks to RedBooth Group for sending us to Primo to try out and review; all food items were covered, but we paid for any alcohol and tip. As always, all opinions are our own and we aren’t afraid to be honest about products, restaurants, and experieces. If we don’t like it, we will tell you. Regardless, this blog only recommends products or services we use personally and believe will be good for our readers.