I call them mouth bruisers.
Crusty paninis so brittle and crisp, they’ll scrape the roof of your mouth. Nobody should risk a mouth injury while eating a sandwich. Paninis are on menus all over town and there’s a good reason for that. The panini grill is a convenient piece of kitchen equipment. It makes a gooey, grilled sandwich with little tending, but requires good timing.
And that’s where some restaurants derail: timing. Too long on the press and the crust becomes too crunchy; the interior so compressed, the ingredients are no longer individual components. Paninis for me are best when there’s a fair ratio between ingredients and a separation between the layers. I still want to be able to identify the spinach on a mozzarella-ham panini, I don’t want it to become a slimy layer of Army green disaster between meat and cheese.
At Villa Caffe & Imbibery, a nearly two-month-old restaurant located near the Greater Tacoma Convention Center, the paninis are pillowy soft, with separation and distinguishable layers. The bread is kissed, but not overly compressed by the panini grill. The grill marks are there, but there are not crunchy, mouth-bruising peaks and valleys. In the kitchen is someone who knows how to craft a sandwich. Villa Caffe owner and chef Robyn Murphy uses as her foundation the soft and airy panino roll from Essential Baking Company, a Seattle bakery with a mission statement to bake organic.
“I had used a panini roll from Costco. It’s really tough and chewy. It gets hard when you grill it. I was looking for something organic; that’s what led me to Essential Bakery. They use organic flours and they practice good environment practices.”
The square rolls form the soft, but sturdy foundation, and the mortar is meat from Boar’s Head, a company that touts that its deli meats “contain no fillers, gluten, artificial colors, flavors or trans fat.”
Murphy also uses fresh herbs on many of her sandwiches, a flavorful touch sandwich lovers will appreciate. When the farmers markets open, she intends to source more ingredients locally.
A menu of seven paninis on the lunch and dinner menu run the gamut from vegetarian to meat centric; from timid to bold flavors. A daily specials board lists revolving panini and soup specials.
Of the four paninis (all priced $8.50) I tried on three visits, I can’t decide if I liked the longshoreman’s or the Market Street sandwich better.
The longshoreman was a saucy yin to the Market Street’s cheesy yang. It came with sliced chicken breast generously covered in tangy barbecue sauce, with a light smear of mayo for added richness. Cheddar cheese oozed from the middle, and red onions provided sweet contrast. A layer of cilantro sprigs brought a bright herbal note. The Market Street packs on the flavor with layers of roast beef and red onions stacked between melted gorgonzola and teased with a tart balsamic reduction sauce that Murphy makes in the kitchen when things are slow.
The Three Bridges sandwich presented a flavor surprise I really appreciated – fresh oregano. Murphy doesn’t overwhelm with fresh herbs, but she does like to coax and layer herbal flavors using ingredients such as fresh oregano and cilantro. Murphy’s philosophy is this: “If there’s tomato, it has to have oregano.” I like how she thinks. The sandwich comes with sliced chicken breast, mozzarella, a pesto aioli, sundried tomatoes and a sprinkle of fresh oregano.
For breakfast sandwiches, the menu lists three panini “sammies.” I tried the vegetarian ($4.25) with avocado, spinach, tomato and egg. The exterior was a crisp English muffin, but the interior was soft and squishy, moistened too much by the spinach and tomato inside. Avocado made it a slippery mess. It needed cheese to glue it together. The rest of the breakfast menu is pastries, gussied up oatmeal, yogurt and a malted waffle ($4.95), which was a thick, rich waffle with just a bit of malty mouthfeel. It came topped with raspberries and blueberries and Chantilly cream.
As lunch fades to dinner, the imbibery part of Villa Caffe unfolds. The restaurant sits on the ground floor of the Villagio Apartments. Residents make up the core of Murphy’s night business. Murphy previously owned Robyn’s Nest in Steilacoom and ran other food and floral design businesses. The space is a reflection of her previous businesses – part grab-and-go/part hang-out-and-sip coffee. At Villa, the concept gets a little more diluted: a coffee spot in the morning with espresso, a sandwich shop by afternoon, then a cocktail lounge by night.
It’s a space that has lots of cold and hard surfaces – concrete floors and exposed ductwork. A couch flanks one wall, small café tables span across the long space. A bar and stools make up the cocktail portion of the business. Murphy’s boyfriend and business partner Jason Alexander runs the bar. He crafts a revolving menu of specialty cocktails with scratch ingredients – such as lemondrops made with a homemade lavender infused simple syrup; and a house-made limoncello liqueur.
At dinner, the menu gets more hearty, but it also gets more vague in concept. There are two pasta dishes – manicotti and lasagna- and a spinach soufflé, along with the lunchtime offering of paninis and salads. That’s not a lot of substantial choices for evening diners. On one visit, lasagna was the only entrée available. Murphy said she’s still playing with her food inventory and has trouble predicting how much of everything to make. I’d say if you head there for dinner, don’t count on it being a dining event. Consider it more of a noshing experience.
On the theme of noshing, the artisan cheese and fruit plate ($7.50 serves one or $14.00 for two) is as pretty as a floral display, which makes sense given Murphy’s floral background. The plate was a masterpiece in layering: Dried figs, dried apricots, dried cherries, raisins, golden raisins, fresh strawberries, green grapes, purple grapes, three kinds of cheeses (a coastal cheese with honey and fig, a stilton apricot and an aged cheddar), chocolate dipping sauce, marcona almonds and spicy pecans. It’s a meal in itself, and a very hearty nibble. As one dining companion put it: Villa’s artisan plate is like therapy, you keep digging and revealing, all the way to the bottom.
VILLA CAFFE & IMBIBERYWhere: 1328 Market St., TacomaPhone: 253-222-4184Hours: 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays-Mondays.