ORLANDO — Whenever Gilberto Ramirez gets ready to start cooking dinner, all he has to do is reach into his organic garden.
“We grow a lot of things in our garden,” Ramirez said. “Basically, it’s to help out the planet.”
The environmentally-conscious chef isn’t talking about the cooking he does at his home. The organic garden is located at the place where Ramirez works as the Chef de Cuisine, or chef in charge: Primo, by Melissa Kelly, the restaurant inside the JW Marriot Orlando hotel in the Grand Lakes resort off John Young and the Central Florida Parkway. Their mission: upscale dining in a restaurant that serves Mediterranean food with, as Ramirez noted, “a heavy Italian influence.”
The restaurant emphasizes fresh local ingredients such as citrus and seafood, along with vegetables and herbs grown on-site in that organic garden.
“We’re supporting our local farmers, with local ingrediences and local produce,” Ramirez said.
Primo opened its doors around the same time that the JW Marriott did a few years ago, and Ramirez has also been there from the beginning.
“I started out, actually, as Cook 3 — which is a starting cook,” he said. “I moved my way up to Cook 2, Cook 1, and then supervisor.” Then he completed his climb up the ladder when he became the chef in charge of planning their menu.
“Our signature dish is Pork Sulta Malta,” he said. “It’s two very thin medallions of pork with roasted garlic and mashed potatoes. That’s probably the biggest seller there is.”
What’s the key to making a dish like that?
“The key to it is respect the food and take care of the ingredients,” he said. “And make it with love.”
Primo offers indoor and outdoor seating, for dinner only. The doors open at 6 p.m. and close at 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Their success has been impressive at a time when consumers are very selective about how they spend their money.
Central Florida’s economy went into a painful tailspin in 2008 as the once-booming housing market crashed, and the local unemployment rate soared to double digits.
The hospitality and tourism industries didn’t get spared the turmoil, and took a major hit as well in 2009.
But so far this year, the industry appears to be on a rebound and getting stronger. Hotel occupancies are up, the theme parks are reporting improved attendance numbers, and even a high end restaurant like Primo is doing solid business — an encouraging sign at a time when consumer spending remains so tight.
“Right now it’s a little busy,” Ramirez said. “We get on average about 150 people a night. We can do 237.”
He expects those numbers to improve in May, with both Mother’s Day and the Memorial Day Weekend coming up.
“Mother’s Day is pretty big for us,” he said.
Part of their appeal, he added, is giving the guests an experience they’re likely to remember — both in terms of the quality of food served and the service provided from the moment they walk in the door.
“They start coming in at 6 o’clock, and the first person they see is the hostess,” Ramirez said. Having made reservations in advance — highly recommended at Primo — “We try to greet them by name,” he said. “Then we walk them to their table and the server will tell them about how we operate, and our philosophy, how we’re supporting our local community. That’s our biggest goal.”
And, of course, they encourage guests to stay long enough to sample Primo’s dessert menu, he added.
“We have a lot of great desserts,” he said. And if they want to top it off with a drink, “We do have a lot of different wines, great Italian wines.”
These days, Ramirez said, Primo is trying to develop its own identity, separate from the hotel that it’s a part of.
“The biggest challenge we have is we are in a great hotel, but some of our local residents don’t know we’re here,” he said. “But we do get some locals who say, ‘Boy, we never knew you existed before’ once they find out about us. We’re a specialty restaurant.”
Primo is at 4040 Central Florida Parkway in Orlando. For reservations at Primo, call 407-393-4444. For reservations at the JW Marriott, call 407-206-2300.
To learn more, log on to http://www.grandelakes.com/Primo-78.html.

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