We heart these people

By JEFF INGLIS  |  February 10, 2010

Food + Drink

Jay Villani

His staff bustling behind him in the kitchen, preparing vats of soups and trays of baked goods for a long day of lunch and dinner service, is testimony to Chef JAY VILLANI's argument that his success in the Portland restaurant scene is not all his own doing.

"I don't know all the answers and I'm not one of these chefs who throws bowls around and demands and expects," he says. Instead, he encourages his staff, both back and front of the house, to contribute their ideas and creativity to making both his restaurants successful. As a matter of fact, he says he couldn't have opened his second restaurant, Sonny's at 83 Exchange Street (in the former O'Naturals space), if he couldn't rely heavily on them.

Villani's first restaurant, Local 188, which he affectionately refers to as "his first marriage," is now in its 11th year. While he has been spending much of his time lately getting Sonny's up and running, both restaurants are always on his mind. "Nicholas [Nappi] is uptown [at Local 188] and he's doing a great job and we touch base every day to talk about the food," he says. "I've told him this is his restaurant now and I said when we were making the transition: 'If you tank our business, I'll strangle you — but no pressure,'" he says with a smile.

Some of the added pressure of opening a second place has been softened by having gone through a major transition at Local 188 before. Its expansion from a 25-seat restaurant at 188 State Street to 100 seats at 685 Congress Street, was intensified by public hype and high expectations. This time around, Villani knew what he was in for. And so far, the opening of Sonny's has gone fairly smoothly. "Down here we've got our legs under us. It's all uncharted waters, but on this end it, I've got it down and it's a lot easier," he says.

But he continues to be surprised by all the attention he receives. "Chefs have been romanticized and it's awesome for guys like me who are in the business and I have to chuckle when people pontificate on it," he says. "I just wanted to be really good and that's how we approached everything: it's simple and good."

Sonny's is one of several new restaurants to open in Portland recently, and Villani said it's indicative of the value Portlanders place on dining, but also a reflection of the growing national interest in all things food. "It's great and it's enabled people like myself to carve out a nice little existence," he says. "Twenty-five years ago, there was no food network and this renaissance came about with that instant access. It's at people's fingertips now and they don't have to go dig out a review in a paper."

While Villani intends to continue making an impression on the Portland food scene, he contests that he won't let it get to his head. "I'm grateful to be in this position and I don't take it for granted and I'm very humbled by this town," he says.

KIM ANDERSON | owner, North Star Music Café | Cultivating an all-organic sense of community

ANTHONY BARRASSO | owner, Anthony's Italian Kitchen | Feeding Portland's cops and lawyers, keeping dinner theater alive

ELI CAYER | owner, Maine Mead Works | The new Maine drink we all buzz about

STEVE + MICHELLE CORRY | executive chef + general manager, Five Fifty-Five | Feeding Arts District culture-mavens with class and flair

ERIK + KRISTA DESJARLAIS | chefs-owners, Evangeline, Bresca, Twelve Seats | A culinary power couple showing the future to Portland's foodies

ROB EVANS | executive chef, Hugo's | Collecting wild foods and culinary specialties

David Geary (Geary's), Rob Tod (Allagash), Fred Forsley (Shipyard), Richard Pfeffer (Gritty's), Brad Monarch (Sebago) | beer guys | Brewing Portland proud

SAMANTHA + DON LINDGREN | co-owners, Rabelais Books | Sharing their taste, in books

ERIC MICHAUD | owner, Novare Res Bier Café | Bringing us great beer from the around the world

MICHELLE AT THE SNUG | bartender/bouncer/truth-speaker | Making our winters more bearable (and all the other seasons, too)

JOHN NAYLOR, SCOTT ANDERSON, LISA CHILDS | co-owners, Rosemont Market and Bakery | Making eating and drinking local every day a reality

JOSH POTOCKI + AMY PARKER | co-owners, 158 | A breakfast (and lunch) oasis across the bridge

LEE + DONNIE THIBODEAU, BOB HARKINS, CHRIS DOWE | co-owners, Cold River Vodka | Creating a new way to enjoy Maine potatoes

DAVID TURIN + PATRICK MORANG | executive chef + bar manager, David's | Mixing cuisine and our other favorite pastime, drinking, in fresh combinations

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