No restaurant can fulfill every craving, but Nana’s Westerly comes pretty close. The all-day cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, with a menu that includes everything from artisan breads and baked goods to sourdough pizzas and housemade pastas, plus coffee or cocktails. The Westerly outpost of the Mystic, CT cafe has a larger menu, with more dinner options, like hanger steak and baked cod entrees.
Behind it all is a talented team of four owners, including head baker Dave Vacca and chef Corey Lein. They work closely with the other partners, executive chef James Wayman and manager Aaron Laipply, to keep things running smoothly seven days a week.
Vacca spends his days – and many early mornings – pulling pillowy loaves and other baked goods out of the oven, while Lein focuses on whipping up dishes like salads and pastas. Despite their differing expertises in the kitchen, they have many things in common, including a love of local ingredients and a similar experience entering the industry as teenagers – both learned on the job.
At 16, Vacca got a job bussing tables at a restaurant named Noah’s near his home in Stonington and quickly worked his way up. “The chef there at the time asked if I wanted to start flipping pancakes on Sunday mornings instead of bussing tables, so I started making pancakes and then, you know, started cooking eggs and doing short-order stuff.”
That’s also where he learned how to make bread. “That got my gears going in the baking direction, but the savory direction really had me too,” he says, adding that he eventually started cooking lunch and dinner as well.
Lein also started cooking young, when he landed a role at a sandwich shop in Chester. “I actually started because my brother was working there, which is funny because he’s actually no longer in the industry, and I still am,” he says. He quickly became hooked and eventually moved on to roles at higher-end restaurants while cooking his way through college.
But even after he earned a college degree in criminology, he had no desire to leave the restaurant business. “There’s just something about cooking,” he says. “It’s like you’re learning every day. You could work forever in the restaurant industry and still not know everything.”
Lein’s and Vacca’s paths crossed when they both ended up cooking alongside each other at Oyster Club in Mystic, along with Wayman. Vacca was chef de cuisine at the time and, out of necessity, started baking bread. “At first, I was a little bit nervous that making bread every day was going to get really monotonous after all those years of writing menus and playing with all sorts of different foods,” Vacca shares. “But it’s actually been really exciting. I love the feeling of when you pull something out of the oven and it’s like, wow, that came out better than I hoped.”
With a passion for bread-making, Vacca focuses heavily on sourdoughs for loaves as well as pizza dough and donut batter at Nana’s. In addition to being delicious, “sourdough is more easily digestible and more nutritious than a straight yeasted bread,” he says. He’s also a fan of flours that are locally grown and milled, as well as heritage grains. For example, he points out that he’s proud of a Portuguese bolo muffin he developed using whole-grain spelt flour.
Vacca’s style melds well with Wayman and Lein’s approach to developing menus. Fermentation, including using products like Japanese miso and koji, is a throughline in many of Nana’s sweet and savory offerings.
Aside from a focus on fermentation, Lein says, “I actually don’t have a specific cooking style. I do like small plates in general, and things made with really fresh ingredients. I try to keep it simple and local as much as possible.” He shares he was heavily
influenced by a trip to Spain. “They let the ingredients speak for themselves. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do in Westerly.” Lein also draws inspiration from Italian cuisine and enjoys crafting handmade pastas, including cavatelli and tagliarini, for the restaurant’s regular Pasta Nights.
The job comes with challenges, including a busy schedule. But Lein explains that the camaraderie he has found with his fellow owners and their staff makes it worth it – not to mention he gets to work with his wife, front-of-house manager Haley. Says Lein, “When you’re with people you really like, it makes putting in those long hours a lot easier.”
82 High Street, Westerly
213-3911 • NanasRI.com
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