About 45 minutes north of midtown Manhattan, near the town of Ardsley, we passed a sign for the Great Hunger Memorial, a sculpture marking the potato blight in Ireland.
"Shouldn't we try to find something to eat around here?" I asked my husband, whose stomach was growling as his mood matched the darkening skies.
"Just keep going," he said.
Within minutes, drizzle turned to fierce rain, forcing drivers to the side of the Sawmill River Parkway. Our spirits sank further as we passed a pack of bicyclists huddled forlornly under a plastic sheet. We would never make it to Dia:Beacon. We inched along, wiping the inside of our foggy windshield with paper towels, grimly focused now on food, not art. When an exit appeared for Croton Falls, we peeled off the parkway without a word and turned left onto Route 22.
We were completely unprepared for Primavera, a graceful restaurant housed in a white Italianate building with a cupola on the fourth floor. Incongruously located adjacent to a gas station, the restaurant was either a real find or a tourist trap. Too hungry to care either way, we handed our keys to the valet, wary of an expensive, inedible meal.
Our apprehension faded as soon as we were seated on the terrace. A waiter surprised us with a plate of delicious antipasto and crusty bread almost immediately. The simple presentation of olives and salami, chunks of moist parmesan, and spicy peppers disarmed us. A tomato plant poked up between the bushes at the edge of the terrace. The proprietors must be Italian Italians, my husband and I agreed. The traffic on Route 22 seemed insignificant.
Service was friendly and dignified. Our waiter informed us about the specials without drowning us in excessive detail. I asked for the branzino, and my husband ordered soft shell crabs (both $33).
"Don't worry. It's fresh," our waiter said definitively, whisking away our menus.
Watching him bend over a side table with surgical intensity, I suspected he was slicing a crumbly tart. But the filleted sea bass he brought to our table was the most flavorful I had ever tasted, light and delicately grilled, served with a savory sauce. My husband's soft-shell crabs, presented on a bed of fresh spinach, were crispy and tender. A side of sautéed vegetables struck just the right note. My cappuccino was so dense and good that it required another. I was ready to start the whole meal over again.
Instead, I went exploring. Diners lingered in the spacious entry before leaving. An intimate dining area with just a few tables stood to the right, and a lively bar with a relaxed menu that included pizzas, pastas, and sandwiches stood across from a staircase, one that I was tempted to climb. Floorboards creaked underfoot and I peeked into the main dining room where a party was in full swing.
Another celebration was underway downstairs. Space is fluid at Primavera, and it's possible to have a perfectly tranquil meal as others fête weddings and birthdays. Generous windows look onto a calming green expanse in the back (though that view may change with plans afoot for a hotel on the acreage behind the restaurant).
Primavera has known many lives as both restaurant and residence. Originally built by a member of the Purdy family, one of the original settlers in the area, it was also known as the 1864 House, so named for its date of construction. Mona Trattoria followed, a family-operated Italian restaurant that operated for some 30 years. In 2002, actor Stanley Tucci bought it and renamed it Finch Tavern, renovating it with dark wood shutters and soft yellow banquettes that feel fresh today. In a nod to adjacent North Salem (considered equestrian country), as well as his horse-owning investors, a mural of horses went in across one wall, and the crowds came.
"When they started, it was a wonderful business," Kenny Gjevukaj, owner and operator of Primavera along with his brother, Gino, and their cousin, Jimmy, said. "One Big Night," however, did not necessarily lead to another, and the Gjevukajs bought the restaurant in 2005.
Born and raised in Kosovo, chef Gino, 48, learned the business first-hand from their father, who ran a modest restaurant back home. Gino and Jimmy, 50, were the first to arrive in the States in 1985. Kenny, the youngest at 34, followed the pair in 1994. Gino received his formal training at a culinary institute in Dubrovnik and landed his first job in America at a Manhattan seafood restaurant called the Dolphin. He bought and sold a small mom-and-pop restaurant in New Rochelle and eventually acquired Dimora, now a roaring success in Norwood, N.J. Kenny worked in Manhattan restaurants such as Coco Pazzo Teatro, as well as Grissini, an upscale spot in Englewood Cliffs. Jimmy started as a cook at Lattanzi in Manhattan, and worked his way up to maître d'.
"Our father's grandmother was right from the sea," Kenny, just back from a vacation near his home in Montenegro, said. He sampled some branzino while he was there, but it didn't compare to Primavera's.
"Nobody does it the way we do it," Kenny said of Gino's sauce, a blend of olive oil, herbs, and a touch of brandy, a trick he learned from his teacher in Dubrovnik. "If we change it, people say, 'go back to the old way.'"
No renovation was necessary when the Gjevukajs took ownership, but Kenny did add a wine cellar. Activity at the bar was unabated by mid-afternoon. Flashy creations such as the Sexy Martini — a blend of Absolut Raspberri, triple sec, lime, and cranberry and raspberry juices — generate much business.
"The ladies like martinis nowadays. They drink more than the men," Kenny said.
The sun had finally come out and traffic was light on the drive back to Manhattan. My husband and I savored our dessert once we got back home and watched a video of Kenny on the Primavera Web site making a banana and strawberry flambé. The dramatic blaze of light was the perfect ending to our meal.
Ms. Ashour is the author of "Sweet Remedy" and other novels.