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(Gerardo Mora for The Boston Globe)

Kingdom of taste

There's more on Orlando's menu than theme parks, and Melissa Kelly, owner-chef of Primo restaurants, shares some favorites near her second home

By Alison Arnett
Globe Staff / February 11, 2007
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Melissa Kelly plucks a weed from under a luxuriant stand of basil in the garden below her restaurant, then turns to a bed of Johnny-jump-ups and another of diminutive red lettuces.

A tiny lizard runs along the top of the garden wall as Kelly, chef and owner of the Primo family of restaurants, dusts off her hands and heads up the stairs. It's a scene fitting for Kelly, one of the country's culinary gurus of everything organic, whose original Primo in Rockland, Maine, is famed for the vegetables, fruits, and even pigs raised just steps from the kitchen.

But here in Orlando, home of Walt Disney World and other massive theme park resorts, even the word "organic" sounds somehow out of place. "We had to bring in all the soil" for the garden, she explains, which sits next to the Grande Lakes Orlando resort's sprawling golf course. At Kelly's insistence, the grounds crew that maintains the garden cannot use the "gray water" sprayed elsewhere in the resort because it might contain chemicals.

"That's going on the menu tonight," says Kelly, pointing out the Tuscan kale that will be part of the evening's dish of Arctic char. She and her chef de cuisine, Kathleen Blake, talk over other details of the menu at the restaurant that Kelly opened in 2003 at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes . Kelly, a petite woman dressed in a chocolate-colored sweater and khaki slacks, grabs her cellphone, ready to lead a Disney-less, all-natural tour of the city she has made a second home.

A few minutes later, we're heading down a traffic-clogged highway, its billboards trumpeting the fantasy of the Disney universe just a few miles away. Kelly's fiance, Price Kushner, the restaurant's pastry chef, wine adviser, and all-round go-to-guy, has come along because "he knows the way better," she says, as Kushner and the driver discuss a loop through Greater Orlando.

"This is the headlands of the Everglades," Kelly says, as downtown Orlando looms on the horizon, adding that the downtown night club scene is heating up. Even Paris Hilton has a boîte.

"When we're down here," says Kelly, "we spend most of our time at the restaurant." The couple lives in Maine, down the road from the rustic first Primo, but they travel at least once a month to Orlando and every six weeks or so to their third Primo in Tucson. But when they do venture out, she says, they often go to this downtown district in Winter Park.

"It's one of the only areas where you can walk around," Kelly says, to enjoy lunch or amble in the pretty Central Park with its mature trees and winding paths. There is a farmers market here on Saturdays, and sprinkled amid chain stores like Williams-Sonoma are independent restaurants, shops , and several wine bars. "Wine is a big thing here," says Kelly, pointing out several wine bars along Park Avenue as we step into The Wine Room.

Inside, the store- lounge- cafe resembles a cozy cave with brick arches and comfortable couches where customers chat as they sip wine. In the middle of each room and along the side are stainless steel contraptions that keep wine under pressure and dispense it in 1-ounce to full-glass amounts.

Although other wine stores have dispensers, The Wine Room combines retail with casual dining, allowing customers to try wines and linger as they socialize. David Black, the wine buyer, explains that customers buy a $2 card, are given a glass, then add as much money to the card as they want . They insert their cards in the top of the machines, and push a button to dispense the wine.

Kushner, whose curls and wiry build give him a look of continual animation, takes one of the cards and heads to the pinot noir dispenser to sample some Oregon varietals he is thinking about buying for the restaurant. The bottles that can be sampled range from an ounce of $80 California cabernet sauvignon for $8.95 to Australian sauvignon blancs for $1.30. The placards under the bottles have "great descriptions," says Kelly as she wonders why there aren't more Spanish selections.

A few tastes more, and we are headed down Park Avenue. Kelly stops to check out the menu of the Bosphorous Lounge , a Turkish restaurant where people are eating at sidewalk tables. "It's very traditional, not dumbed down," she says approvingly.

This area is getting more interesting, Kelly and Kushner remark, pointing out Luma, a trendy restaurant, and Eola, a wine bar. We duck into a patio area for a restorative espresso at Palmano's Espresso Bar. As she sips her cappuccino, Kelly discusses a recent appearance at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., her alma mater. "I butchered a whole pig " to demonstrate to the students how to use every bit of pork. Kelly values her hands-on approach to cooking, and frets that many young culinary students mostly want to know "how to become famous."

Soon, we are facing pig parts galore in Tien Hung Complete Oriental Food & Gifts , where the sparkling clean butcher's case displays pork stomach, kidneys, ears, feet, and other cuts. Kelly and Kushner gravitate to the seafood display and gleefully fill a paper bag with big crabs. "We'll bring some live crabs for Kathleen," Kelly says.

This stretch along Colonial Drive near downtown is scattered with Vietnamese restaurants and food stores. "There's really no great upscale food store" in the area, Kelly says, so she likes to come here. And besides, here "you can get pigs' feet," or eat at Kelly's favorite restaurant in the area, Anh Hong . "I love the food," she says, "because they use so many vegetables."

A few blocks away is a spot Kushner doesn't want to miss, Il Gelatone. "It's very authentic," says Kelly of the gelato, adding, "he brings the pistachio paste in from Sicily and the hazelnuts are Piedmontese." Frank and Siska Forsyth opened the shop 3 1/2 years ago. Siska Forsyth scoops out the sweet, creamy chocolate and hazelnut flavors for Kushner.

Back we go for another crawl through traffic to a thicket of chain restaurants -- Ruth's Chris Steak House, Roy's, Bonefish -- in the upscale Plaza Venezia shopping center. Kelly is seeking out the independents, the mavericks.

"We often go out to lunch here," she says, as we walk into Cedar's Restaurant. "They make their own pita bread," she says, pointing to a cook who is using a long-handled wooden paddle to push flat loaves into an open fire. "Everything is great here," she says, mentioning the mouhamara, a Lebanese version of caponata.

Our last stop isn't about food. We walk into the Corona Cigar Co., a store-sized humidor where the air is thick and men sit at tables drinking red wine and smoking big cigars while they converse in Spanish. Kelly and Kushner often drop in to look at the displays of rare cigars such as a $3,000 Don Ramon and a 1946 Romeo & Juliet. The manager, Julio Diaz, explains that all the cigars are hand-rolled, even the ones that are only $1.75. Neither Kelly nor Kushner smoke s, but her fondness for the place transcends that. "I just love to see people who do things the right way," she says.

It is getting close to show time, what restaurateurs often call the hour when the first diners come in. We hurry back to Primo, where Kelly goes off to change into her chef whites. Kushner talks about the business -- the tight profit margins, the hard work, and Kelly's dedication -- as staff members light candles and dim the lights. Primo is beautiful at night, all rich, russet tones, sparkling glassware, and gleaming wood.

But it is Kelly's food that illuminates her obsession for organic ingredients and artisanal cooking methods. The breads are gorgeous to look at and even better to eat. Delicate swirls of herb-flecked linguini, made that day in the kitchen, are dotted with tiny sweet Maine shrimp. A signature dish of pork scallopine saltimbocca boasts bits of Kelly's own prosciutto. And the Tuscan kale gracing a plate of Arctic char and giant white Corona beans makes eating healthy delicious. We've added a side plate of more greens, so even with a sweet chocolate budino to finish, we float out of Primo feeling virtuous.

Seen Melissa Kelly's way, even Orlando is organic.

Contact Alison Arnett at arnett@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Grande Lakes Orlando

4040 Central Florida Parkway

407-206-1100

grandelakes.com

There is a JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton hotel at the Grande Lakes Orlando resort, which has a golf course, full spa, and 11 restaurants and cafes. Rates at the Marriott $179- $369 in winter, at the Ritz $229- $399.

Where to eat

Palmano's Espresso Bar 331 South Park Ave.

407-647-7520

The outdoor patio, with space heaters, is a great place to linger.

Il Gelatone 8 North Summerlin Ave.

407-839-8825

ilgelatone-usa.com

A gelateria selling panini at lunch and gelato and other sweets.

Anh Hong 1124 East Colonial Drive

407-999-2656

A small Vietnamese restaurant that Melissa Kelly especially likes for its vegetables. Inexpensive.

Cedar's Restaurant 7732 West Sand Lake Road

407-351-6000

cedarsoforlando.com

Family -run Lebanese restaurant; homemade pita a specialty.Entrees $13-$29.

Primo JW Marriott Orlando

4040 Central Florida Parkway

407-393-4444

grandelakes.com

Melissa Kelly's organic vegetables and other artisanal ingredients used in imaginative, yet rustic Italian dishes. Expensive.

What to do

The Wine Room 270 Park Ave. South

407-696-9463

thewineroomonline.com

Tastes of 156 wines to try and buy, plus light meals of cheese, soups, salads, and sandwiches.

Corona Cigar Co.

7792 West Sand Road

407-248-1212, 888-702-4427

coronacigar.com

Cigars $1.75 to about $3,000. Wine and other spirits served.

Tien Hung Complete Oriental Food & Gifts 1112 East Colonial Drive

407-422-0067

Small store packed with Asian products.

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