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Beard Award Winner Michael Schlow Opens His First Fast-Casual Restaurant

Prima serves bowls based on Italian antipasto in Bethesda

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Salad and grain bowls built with Italian ingredients at Prima.
Salad and grain bowls built with Italian ingredients at Prima.
Prima [official]

The latest Italian restaurant from the Schlow Restaurant Group behind pasta houses Alta Strada and Casolare opened yesterday on Bethesda Row, but there won’t be a single noodle found in the new place.

With Prima, which takes over the former Taylor Gourmet location at 7280 Woodmont Avenue, James Beard award-winning chef Michael Schlow enters the fast-casual market by selling salad and grain bowls chocked full of ingredients that typically appear on Italian antipasto platters.

The build-your-own selection ($10) starts off with a base of kale, arugula, brown rice, or quinoa and segues to veggies such as marinated baby artichokes, sweet peas with fresh mint, tuscan white beans, and wild mushrooms with rosemary and balsamic vinegar.

For an additional charge, customers can add proteins like grilled chicken, Sicilian tuna, or meatballs modeled after a recipe from Schlow’s mother-in-law.

Frico chips, crispy shards of Parmesan, add crunch at the end. Dips, spreads, and dressings include spicy whipped ricotta or classic Caesar.

“We thought, how can we do something that feels good, is Italian, is healthy, is seasonal, and has an impact about not just how we’re eating, but how we feel about each other and how we’re working together?” Schlow tells Eater.

To celebrate the opening, Prima is offering free bowls today for lunch and dinner until it runs out of food.

Prima menu by on Scribd

For Schlow, who was named Best Chef: Northeast in 2000 at Radius in Boston, opening a healthy, quick-service restaurant had been a goal for years. But the idea to prioritize the main ingredients at Prima goes back much farther.

The ingredients in Prima’s primordial stew come from the kitchens of two restaurants in New York. As a kid, Schlow used to frequent Trattoria Dell’Arte across the street from Carnegie Hall. To this day, the place has a giant antipasto table with an extensive list of salads and starters.

“I would always be so enamored that I would make a whole meal out of it,” Schlow says.

When he started working in kitchens, Schlow landed a job at Sapore di Mare in Long Island. That restaurant reinforced the simple, seasonal way of eating that he instantly recognized when he first traveled to Italy in his 20s.

“We didn’t speak English in that kitchen,” Schlow says. “We expedited in Italian.”

Mushrooms, mozzarella, tomatoes, and white beans go into a bowl at Prima.
Prima [official]

At Prima, the idea is to reproduce the quality of the dishes that first inspired Schlow and repurpose them into bowls that offer the same variety as small plates while making sense as a full meal.

Everything on the menu is gluten-free, including the bread crumbs that went into the meatballs. The Sicilian tuna refers to both where the fish is sourced and the way it’s prepared, in a mix of black olives, capers, parsley, and red peppers.

“I grew up eating Bumble Bee tuna with mayonnaise, and I’m exposed to this,” Schlow says. “I’m like, ‘Oh man.’”

A preselected tuna bowl, developed by Schlow and group culinary director Ed Scarpone, comes with baby arugula, chickpeas, marinated tomatoes, calabrian chile and red pepper spread, and spicy tomato-basil vinaigrette.

Frico crisps add crunch to bowls at Prima.
Prima [official]

Prima is his Schlow’s seventh restaurant in the D.C. area, including two Alta Stradas, Casolare, Tico, Nama sushi, and the Riggsby. The restaurateur says he wants to focus on getting the Bethesda location right before considering expanding Prima. If it works, however, he’d like to open more. Over the past few years, he says, he’s consulted Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer and Cava CEO Brett Schulmann on how to build a winning fast-casual brand.

“They’re able to serve really high quality food at a fast pace and for a reasonable price,” Schlow says. “That was very attractive to me.”

Prima (7280 Woodmont Avenue) is open from 10:30am to 10:00pm on Monday through Friday and from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

A grilled chicken bowl at Prima
Prima [official]