Discarding another former restaurant review rule, I want to tell you about a place that doesn’t serve dinner. To discard a rule, I need a reason, and this one is simple: it’s a genre-buster.
For years, Villa Coffee House, a breakfast and lunch spot in Lewiston, was serving the sort of eggs-and-sandwiches menu you would expect in a neighborhood diner. In 2018 Stephen Pusateri took over, following four years at the former fine-dining star Rue Franklin, where he became second-in-command.
Working in the kitchen the size of a compact minivan, Pusateri has been turning out a small menu low in exotic ingredients, moderate in price, and high in quality. Pancakes and oatmeal, French toast and omelets, sure, but here’s a breakfast spot that is making its own bagels from scratch, where the daily special might be French gnocchi crisped in brown butter.
It’s a restaurant genre we haven’t often seen here: fine diner.
[Related: Ask a critic - how do restaurant reviews work?]
For years, Villa was a place you would rely on for the basics, reliable and convenient. Now it’s a place you might plan around, in Lewiston, or even within a half-hour’s drive.
Pusateri spiffed it up with a new coat of paint and fresh wood floors, and fresh flowers, but most of the staff has stayed on, so it’s not like you’re going to get any fancy-pants airs from the servers. Or the prices.
The regular lineup tops out at $13, for steak and eggs (a 6-ounce slice of New York strip steak, two eggs, home fries and toast). A former house specialty, mixed eggs, scrambled with potatoes, vegetable and meat add-ins optional, starts at $5/$6, with toast.
Pusateri knew I was eating there, but I am confident his food won’t go worse for you. On my lunch visit, the first surprise was the house-made bagels ($3), delightfully fluffy inside, crisped up in toasting for an audible crunch. (The everything schmear is cream cheese, poppyseed, dried onion.) English muffins are house-made as well.
Corned beef hash ($10), starting with house-cured beef, is the chunky type, with well-browned nuggets of potato and meat, not seared fine-grained mash. The meat-and-potatoes breakfast is topped with two eggs, and a side of toasted DiCamillo Italian bread.
It was good, but the breakfast enchilada ($8) was even better. A corn tortilla was folded around pork roasted low and slow so the sweetness emerged, with caramelized onion, cheddar cheese and potatoes, and a sunny-side up fried egg perched on top. The assembly was accented with fresh-cut pico de gallo salsa and emboldened by a brown sauce centered on charred peppers, resolutely chile-flavored but not spicy.
Outstanding sandwiches included a hefty Cuban ($9) griddled on Italian, packing more of that roasted pork, ham, dill pickles, mustard and Swiss cheese. More in-house baking lifts a chicken meatloaf sandwich ($8.50) on focaccia, with olive salad, mozzarella and zesty tomato sauce, and a roast beef sandwich ($9.50) with rosy meat piled high on an airy roll, dressed with spinach, caraway and horseradish sauce of pleasantly startling intensity.
At Villa, many standards are special – and many specials are extraordinary. Pusateri is offering two or three interesting nonstandard dishes a week, dishes given a little white-tablecloth treatment, at $8 to $13. It might be a smoked salmon dish with silver-dollar blini, eggs, herbed cream cheese, pickled mustard seeds and fresh herb pesto ($10).
My visit introduced me to pillowy-tender chicken meatballs ($8) infused with tomato flavor, finished with Parmigiano-Reggiano and served with housemade focaccia. Biscuits in pork and beef gravy with a hint of roasted fennel ($8) were more cake-y than flaky. Dark-meat turkey confited in fat, shredded, and topped with melted cheese made a lush filling for slices of griddled focaccia ($10).
Shrimp and grits ($13) offered plentiful bites of crustacean and bits of bacon over coarse cornmeal, but its understated flavors could have used a kick.
Take a look through the restaurant’s Instagram account (@the.villa.coffee.house) for a partial roster of guest-star appearances. There’s Parisienne gnocchi, with mushroom romesco, bacon, garlic scapes, dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a pair of poached eggs. Or soft-scrambled herbed eggs alongside pickled eggplant and roasted tomatoes, with focaccia toast.
At Villa, the breakfast sandwich expands its definition from orthodox egg, meat and cheese arrangements ($5-$8). Case in point: A square of potato frittata on a griddled house-made roll with sautéed zucchini ribbons and fresh spinach, bacon and mozzarella. Then smoked pork loin, potato bread, poached eggs, pineapple and brown butter asparagus.
From time to time, Pusateri’s flights of fancy work the sweet side of the street, as in an apple bread pudding with caramelized apple syrup, almond crumble and meringue infused with Sichuan peppercorn.
Perhaps if all goes well, Pusateri can gather enough of a following to expand his reach to dinner. But even if it stays the same, what he’s got going in Lewiston will do just fine.
Villa Coffee House – 8 plates (out of 10)
Location: 769 Cayuga St., Lewiston, 754-2660
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.
Atmosphere: quiet, polished family spot
Wheelchair accessible: small step at door.
Gluten-free options: breakfast enchilada, eggs.