When Stephen Pusateri took over a diner wedged into a plaza off the beaten path in Lewiston four years ago, I had my hopes. He ran the kitchen at the late, great Rue Franklin, the French-inspired jewel box that introduced me to ile flottante, a gossamer French cloud of meringue afloat on crème anglaise.
You never forget your first.
Pusateri regularly fills his small room for better-than-average breakfasts and lunches, featuring scratch cooking in sauces, main, and baked goods like housemade English muffins ($3).
He’ll still fry up eggs and potatoes together ($6.50), a touch of the old menu. Meanwhile, he’s corning beef for corned beef hash ($11, two eggs and toast) and offering a sublime breakfast enchilada ($9) of tender roast pork, charred pepper sauce and cheddar in a crispy corn tortilla, crowned with a jiggly sunny-side-up egg.
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In January, Stephen and his wife, Janelle, decided to offer dinner. First it was two nights a week, then when their regulars responded with hunger, they made it three: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Reservation only. A six-top walking in would send this careful ballet of orders, timing and expectations into a mosh pit.
What can a two-person restaurant do for dinner?
Three starters. Four mains. Two desserts. Fifteen wines and beers.
One of the best meals of my life.
Part of it was the company, dear friends with stories to tell and revelations to spice up the evening.
Part of it was that a table of four is the prime Villa dinner experience. Tell Janelle “one of everything, please,” and revel in the simple luxury of following your friend’s tale instead of fretting that you ordered poorly. Share and share alike.
Bread service varies from week to week, but it’s always a gratis housemade wonder. On one memorable night it was the cheese puffs called gougeres (le sigh). But the focaccia inset with roasted tomatoes and dusted with flakes of Maldon salt that we got eased my pangs considerably.
Listed as "corn, pumpkin seeds, poached egg" ($13), our first dish showed Pusateri likes to understate and overdeliver. What arrived was August in a bowl, sweet corn kernels riding a wave of corn espuma – corn broth foam – enriched with yolk and punctuated by the toasty crunch of pepitas.
When there are four spoons, a taste is just enough.
“Sweet pea agnolotti, ricotta, mint, roasted cherry tomato ($16)” offered us six tender stamp-sized pasta packets filled with sweet pea essence, napped with mint pesto, roasted cherry tomatoes and salty shards of crispy prosciutto.
“Fried octopus, pickled peppers, caper aioli ($17)” brought the proceedings to a standstill. We ordered another bottle of wine.
Departing from standard octopus preps, Pusateri fries tentacle nugs to a crackle, plating them with bracing pickled chiles and an umami-bomb caper aioli that speaks garlic fluently. Drawing out another side of ingredients we thought we knew is one of the pleasures Pusateri succeeds in delivering.
The arrival of “Swordfish, creamy chickpeas, roasted eggplant, tomato ($34)” drew gasps. After years of trying to rationalize chalky vulcanized swordfish presented in finer dining establishments, I had a minor epiphany. Swordfish can be lush, its pleasures enhanced by earthy legumes and fruity roasted vegetables.
“Housemade fettucine, fresh tomato sauce, Parmesan ($22)” melded the noshing pleasure of fresh pasta with refreshingly fruity reduced tomatoes, like eating sunshine and noodles. Leaves of fresh oregano blessed it, just enough to make you wonder if it was there.
“Dry-aged Duroc pork chop, mushroom sformato ($42)” confounded pork chop stereotypes with a jumbo chop that yielded juicy slices of pig all the way through. Sformato Pusateri style is an airy savory pudding potent with fungi flavor, and its accompanying smoked mushroom cream offered two levels of decadence.
“Grilled hanger steak, garlic butter, romesco sauce, potatoes ($38)” rather undersells the marvels of steak cooked dead-on medium rare as requested, sliced and cosseted atop potatoes, and roast-pepper-based romesco sauce. The entire proceedings get blessed with garlic butter.
Desserts did not include ile flottante during my most recent visit, though Pusateri offered a pair of fine-tuned classics. That's the deal at the Villa: In trusting that the Pusateris will take care of you, you support a dining room where the ile flottantes of the world are possible.
Sticky toffee pudding ($9) was an date-ginger island surrounded by caramel and crowned with whipped cream. Peach cobbler, blueberries, goat cheese honey mousse ($10), baked to order, was sublime.
To be sure, it’s not for everybody. The micro-menu and slim staff means diners need to see if their needs can be accommodated when they make their reservation. And yes, you need a reservation.
Check the Villa menu posted to Instagram and Facebook early in the week, and decide.
You might eat dinner every night for the rest of your life, and never match the sensations of the thrillers at the Villa.
Villa Coffee House
769 Cayuga St., Lewiston, thelewistonvilla.com, 716-754-2660
Hours: 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Prices: starters, $13-$17; mains, $22-$42,
Atmosphere: low murmur
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: No
Outdoor dining: yes
Photos: Check out mighty menu at tiny Villa Coffee Shop in Lewiston
Tender and flavorful
Ice cream on top
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