Since 1970, Cerame’s Italian Villa has been a go-to spot in Brighton for such dishes as manicotti, gnocchi, lasagna and chicken Parmesan, made using Cerame family recipes and techniques passed down through generations.
“I love the chicken Parmesan,” said longtime customer Phyllis Composto of Brighton. “It is to die for. It is just great. Even if they’re bombarded, they take their time preparing it, and it arrives hot and it looks wonderful, and it’s so tasty.”
Under new ownership, Cerame’s will continue serving those favorites — and Thai food.
In what surely is a Rochester first, the restaurant has started offering both types of cuisine after being sold to May Dougan and her sister Pornthip Birkensees, natives of Thailand.
So, now the decision may not be between the fettuccine Alfredo and the cheese ravioli, but between the shrimp scampi and the pineapple fried rice with spring rolls.
The siblings, along with May’s husband, Anucha Dougan, immigrated to the United States in 2011, settling in Watertown. In 2016, they opened a Thai restaurant there but within a few years decided to look for a new opportunity in a larger city, which is how they ended up in Rochester.
Their plan was to open a Thai place here. But as fans of Italian fare, too, in mid-2022, they found themselves at Cerame’s for lunch.
“We tried the food, and we really liked it,” said May, 40.
Upon learning the business was for sale, she said, “We were like, ‘Why don’t we just do both?’”
This past summer, they made an offer to owners Bob and Sharon Cerame of Rochester. The deal (the terms of which were not disclosed) was finalized in early October, and the Cerames are helping with the transition.
Their son Robert Cerame, 41, who worked at the restaurant for about five years before becoming an electrician, has been showing the new owners how Cerame’s makes its manicotti and gnocchi, although Birkensees cooked in Italian restaurants while living in Europe.
The time was right to sell the business, Bob said. He and Sharon are in their late 60s and ready to slow down.
“My wife has some health issues,” he said. “She said, ‘Enough is enough.’ It’s a lot of stress.”
Still, the moment is bittersweet.
Cerame’s was started by Bob’s father, Michael, whose first venture was a coffee shop on Joseph Avenue. The youngest of three Cerame brothers, Bob has worked at Cerame’s since he was a teenager, starting off as a part-time dishwasher while a student at Aquinas Institute.
After graduating in 1973, he shifted to full-time status.
“My father told me he’d send me to any college — he’d pay for it,” he said. “I told him, ‘I know what I want to do. You know, why go to college?’”
He’s been around for all the ups and downs, from a 1974 fire that destroyed the first Cerame’s at Twelve Corners to the triumphant 1975 reopening of the current location in Winton Place Plaza (originally called Todd Mart Plaza), near the Henrietta town line.
Alongside his dad, his mother, Elizabeth, and older brother Richard, Bob moved through a variety of roles, learning as he went and occasionally stopping to mark family milestones.
“We even had my son’s baptism here. Confirmations, stuff like that,” he said, looking around the space, which originally had dark, rustic décor and was remodeled with a lighter but still cozy palette in 1990.
In 2011, Richard died from brain cancer. And in 2013, two years before founder Michael Cerame died at age 93, Bob and Sharon took over as owners of Cerame’s, which many loyal customers see as a second home.
Said Composto: “When you go in there, you are made to feel like you’re part of the family. I don’t care how busy they are, they never give the impression that they’re rushing you, and they’re apologetic if you have to wait a couple of minutes.”
Laurie Malsegna started going there as a child, taken by an aunt and uncle who lived in Henrietta.
“Cerame’s became almost like family to us,” said Malsegna, who grew up in Hilton and later moved to Henrietta. “And we can always rely on a good dinner every time we go. My favorite dish is the chicken Parmesan. I married into an Italian family, and when you make chicken Parmesan, the traditional way is to pound the chicken cutlets very thin, and Cerame’s always does that.”
Dougan, who lives in Victor with her husband (who also is involved in the business) and their 7-year-old son, wants to continue catering to diners like Composto and Malsegna, even if she edits out a couple of Italian offerings. She’s not sure which ones yet.
Most of the staff is staying, Dougan doesn’t plan to change the prices, and she’s keeping the Cerame’s name, at least for now.
But she hopes the presence of the Thai dishes prompts people to expand their culinary horizons.
“My son says that stuff like that is popular in California,” said Bob Cerame. “He says they mix everything out there, so why not? It gives people more choices.”
Cerame’s Italian Villa is at 3450 Winton Place, Brighton. Wednesday through Friday, it is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch. Wednesday and Thursday, it is open from 4:30 to 8 p.m. for dinner. Dinner hours on Friday are 4:30 to 9 p.m. On Saturday, Cerame’s is open for dinner only from 4:30 to 9 p.m. It is closed Sunday through Tuesday. The restaurant’s new owners are awaiting a liquor license that will enable them to serve wine and beer. Call (585) 427-7350, or go to cerames.com.