By Joshua Maloni
Stephen Pusateri is the first to admit he's not Tom George.
Speaking of the longtime, popular owner/chef of The Villa Coffee House, Pusateri said, "It's never quite going to be like it was with Tom, because he was the face of the place. Any time you came here, you saw him. He was just one of a kind."
Of course, that won't stop Pusateri from taking the restaurant and making it his own.
The chef took over the Villa earlier this year. He replaced Mike Loraine, who was chef/owner when George retired in 2013. Prior to this opportunity, Pusateri worked kitchens in the village, as well as in Youngstown, Niagara Falls, Grand Island, Buffalo and Florida.
Pusateri has experience cooking all sorts of entrees, working busy lines and even making desserts.
"I saw it as an opportunity to just get my foot in the door in Lewiston," he said. "I was born and raised here. I want to stay here. (He and his new wife) have a house; we want to raise a family here. I just thought it was a good idea."
Pusateri said he wasn't one to eat breakfast in diners when he was younger, so he didn't grow up with much knowledge of the Villa.
"My dad and I would always look in the paper and online for places, and we saw an ad for this place," he said.
"My dream was always to have a place like Carmelo's - that's my favorite restaurant," Pusateri noted. "But this was the next best thing."
"I was just kind of looking for my own thing," he explained. "I always wanted a restaurant, but I didn't want anything big. And this is arguably still a little big."
And, recently, filled with diners. As word has gotten out about the new owner/chef, the Villa has seen an uptick in business.
The new floor and stools.
Mary Furlong's paintings.
Diners have noticed physical changes - a new floor, fresh paint, reupholstered stools, remodeled bathrooms, and paintings from local artists on the walls - as well as food plating differences.
"We just wanted to change the colors up - make it a little more homey," Pusateri said.
"I have some ideas for the future," he continued. "It's always going to be breakfast and lunch. I don't want to change that. It's a mom and pop breakfast/lunch spot. People like that. There's not many of (those places) around anymore."
However, "I have some plans for the future," Pusateri reiterated.
Namely, he wants to make the menu his own in the coming weeks.
Now, before anyone gets nervous, the Villa's signature items will remain (and that includes pancakes, mixed eggs, burgers, and sandwiches stuffed inside DiCamillo Bakery bread).
But, "There are items that I will make different. Like corned beef hash. I'm buying ... cured brisket and I braise it off. So, we'll be doing corned beef hash with essentially homemade brisket," Pusateri said.
"There are a couple of things I'm introducing," he added. "I have a quiche every weekend, which has fortunately been a very good success. I'll run some specials. Stuff that's in season. Corn's in season, so I decided to do a cornbread pudding with a corn puree, pickled corn, some breakfast sausage, fried egg and like a bacon jam.
"I was running a breakfast enchilada for a while. And that got very good feedback. So, the enchilada will probably go on the menu. And then I'd just like to have a special."
For lunch, Pusateri said, "I have a really good corned beef, so I want to put a Reuben on. The 'Turkey Lurkee' is a big hit, so I'm going to do a version of this turkey club. But now, instead of using deli turkey, I'm roasting my own turkey breast. I'm brining it for a few days; herb-roasting it.
"I want to do a nice French dip. A Cuban.
"Really, I want the lunch to be sandwiches that I would want to go eat."
Pusateri makes items to order. "I hope people realize we're doing that kind of thing here," he said. "I myself enjoy places that do that. I go somewhere where I know tuna fish wasn't made a week ago. It's not probably bad, but it's nice to know it's fresh."
The new owner said he can take time to update the menu because of his faith in the crew - Debbie, Cindy, Carol, Patrick and Sebastian - employees who worked with Tom George.
"They have been truly amazing for me and made the transition just super easy," Pusateri said. "I'm sure there's some people who come in just for them.
"That's one thing that really makes it easy for me to stay in the kitchen. I don't have to have that Tommy George presence, because they know these people - better than I ever will. And that's great."
The Villa Coffee House is located at 769 Cayuga St., Lewiston.
A half-order of the famous mixed eggs.