In Gloucester, Willow Rest may keep a low profile, but its menu is packed with big, bold flavors and farm-fresh ingredients. By Anna and David Kasabian
Inconspicuously situated in an old red-shingled building with gas pumps out front, Willow Rest is nestled at the bottom of a hill on a winding two-lane road riding up the spine of West Gloucester. Don’t be fooled by its modest appearance; inside is one of the most original eateries anywhere—not just the North Shore—which also doubles as a progressive gourmet grocer and unfussy neighborhood haunt.
Plop down on a stool at the counter or a chair at one of the tables and order from the simple paper menu or straight from the chalkboard of daily specials. Then, get ready for a wild, tasty ride. Chef and owner Melissa Donati has created a total food experience in her own image: warmly informal, eccentrically creative, unstintingly focused on quality ingredients, and with a Michelin-starred chef’s attention to detail: “The croutons floating on the soup were the wrong color,” she declared, “so I changed them.”
Come for breakfast and the Frittata of the Day, the Breakfast Burrito, the Morning Sandwich, or the impressive three-egg omelet, overstuffed with tasty fresh veggies and top-quality ham or bacon. Come for lunch or early dinner and feast on signature sandwiches like the Dogtown, Rte 127, Annisquam Delight, or the criminally addictive Big BLT, comprising crunchy cherrywood-smoked bacon, mixed field greens, sliced tomato, and mayo on grilled ciabatta. And then there’s their novel riff on the classic Cuban sandwich: Pork shoulder is braised overnight in a secret BBQ sauce, then piled onto a Saint Joseph’s roll (from the famous Virgilio’s Bakery of Gloucester), along with Black Forest ham (no hormones, no antibiotics), Swiss cheese, garlicky dill pickles, and spicy mayo.
And do not miss the focaccia, made from thin, herb-crusted dough. Options range from a modest sliced tomato-mozzarella-and-fresh basil version to some near-psychedelic combos, like sliced, marinated sirloin steak, hot cherry peppers, caramelized onions, mozzarella, and gorgonzola. Or, there’s the roasted yellow and red peppers, Kalamata olives, chopped tomato, roasted garlic, mozzarella, and feta. After sampling Willow Rest’s focaccia, you might, like us, swear off ordinary pizza forever.
Donati’s bakery turns out all manner of breads, pies, and cakes, including a velvety moist chocolate cupcake with a swath of buttercream frosting that will take you to heaven and back. There’s lots of fresh in-season produce from local farms—including Donati’s own mother’s—as well as artisanal cheeses and meats, and a selection of interesting grocery items that are, like everything else about Willow Rest, both different and delightful.
Chef: Melissa Donati. Sandwiches: The Big BLT ($5.99), Cuban ($7.99). Focaccia: Roasted Yellow & Red Peppers, Kalamata Olives, Chopped Tomatoes, Roasted Garlic, Mozzarella & Topped with Feta Cheese ($10.99). Dessert: Chocolate cupcake with buttercream frosting ($2.75). Location: 1 Holly Street, Gloucester, 978-283-2417, willowrest.com.