WATERVILLE — When Tom Nale cooks, he always thinks of his mother, Caroline Nale, from whom he learned everything he knows about Lebanese cuisine.

As a child at her elbow in the family’s Front Street kitchen, he learned how to cook kibbeh sanieh, stuffed grape leaves, cabbage rolls, mujadara, tabouleh, and other traditional dishes.

“I’ve always loved to cook Lebanese food,” Nale, now 76, said Wednesday. “My mother was fluent in Arabic and, being a single parent, we were on welfare and she knew how to use a dollar. A bag of flour went a long ways and I was always in the kitchen and, to this day when I cook, I always wear her apron.”

Now, the retired district court judge, lawyer and Waterville mayor who served the city from 1986-’87, is taking on a new venture. He plans to open a Lebanese restaurant, MEZZA, in about three weeks at 34 Temple St., the site of the former Lebanese Cuisine, also known as the Lebanese Bakery.

The eatery closed earlier this year after owner Laya Joseph died. Nale recalls her with fondness.

“‘Laya,’ in Arabic, translates into ‘blessed, beautiful,'” he said. “She just had a very kind way about her, always had a smile. She was a great cook and she loved what she did and she loved the public and her family. I always wanted to leave a little extra money and she wouldn’t take it.”


Nale frequented the eatery and was sad to see it close. After Joseph’s death, he asked her family members if they wanted to continue in the business and if so, he would do everything he could to help, he recalled.

MEZZA, formerly the site of the Lebanese Bakery, is shown at the right at 34 Temple St. in Waterville on Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“They decided they didn’t want to continue it,” Nale said. “I came in and I renovated the entire space with the understanding that if I couldn’t find someone who could really cook everything right, I’d do it myself.”

Then, culinary experts Jim Veilleux and his partner, Melissa Grant, contacted Nale to say they wanted to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in Waterville. Veilleux, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, is chef in charge of production at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, and Grant worked as a cook at Colby College for nine years. After having a serious discussion with them about the restaurant, Nale said he was convinced they were the right pair to run the eatery once they perfect his mother’s cuisine.

Veilleux said he loved frequenting Lebanese Cuisine and especially loved Laya Joseph’s traditional Easter cookies. He plans to use Caroline Nale’s recipe to bake the cookies and the restaurant will have lots on hand, not just at Easter. He is excited about MEZZA, he said.

“I’ve always just wanted to have my own place,” Veilleux said, “and Tom just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, to keep Lebanese food in Waterville.”

Justin Jurdak, left, and Virginia Waters of Waterville dish up food during a promotion at MEZZA at 34 Temple St. in Waterville on Wednesday. The event, which featured a variety of Lebanese food items, was free and open to anyone. Lebanese dishes including tabouleh, mujardaru, cabbage rolls, grape leaves and kibbeh were served during the event. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Nale said the dishes at MEZZA, which means “small plates” in Arabic, will be freshly made, every day. MEZZA will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. some days and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. others, he said, though the exact scheduled has not yet been finalized.



Veilleux and Nale greeted a steady stream of friends, family members and other patrons who flooded into the restaurant Wednesday for its second soft opening. They dined on free cuisine and chatted, with many hugging and recalling their earlier years growing up on Front Street, just a stone’s throw from Temple Street and Head of Falls, where Lebanese immigrants settled in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The freshly painted walls of the restaurant are adorned with framed photographs and stories of Nale’s grandparents and other relatives and family friends who lived at Head of Falls before the tenement houses were torn down many years ago. Neighborhood residents included the family of former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, which eventually moved to Front Street.

Mitchell’s sister, Barbara Atkins, and his sister-in-law, Janet Mitchell, were among those who dropped in Wednesday, with embraces all around and the sharing of stories.

“The Lebanese community is a very close and strong community in Waterville,” Atkins said, adding that Nale’s food was good and “reminiscent of my mother’s.”

King Court at Head of Falls in Waterville, the site of a Lebanese community, is shown in a historic photo on display with other local Lebanese history at MEZZA at 34 Temple St. in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Nale grew up with five siblings — Mel, John, Richard, Mark and Carole, on Front Street. Their mother and all her siblings were born in a house they grew up in at Head of Falls, he said.


“My grandfather (also Thomas) had a brick oven in his home and baked Syrian bread for the entire neighborhood.”

When Nale’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Lebanon, they left their only child in the old country until they found work. Once his grandfather got a job, their daughter, Jeanne came to the U.S. with her aunt, Nale’s grandmother’s sister, Mintaha, who would become George Mitchell’s mother. George’s brother, Paul, was Nale’s godfather and his godmother was Rosemary Baldacci, mother to former Gov. John Baldacci.


Nale smiled as he greeted guests, the aroma of spices wafting through the 20-seat restaurant.

“The thing about Lebanese or Middle East food is, when you cook, you talk,” he said. “It’s not an effort, it’s not work. It’s a gathering, it’s fun.”

Tom Nale, right, embraces his cousin Janet Mitchell, 92, as Mitchell arrived with her son Bob Mitchell, in doorway, at MEZZA at 34 Temple St. in Waterville on Wednesday. Janet Mitchell is the wife of Robert Mitchell, the brother of former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Among those visiting the restaurant Wednesday were Heather Merrow, who lives in the city’s South End, and Laurie Joseph, who lives in Belgrade but grew up in Waterville where her family owned Joseph’s Market on nearby Front Street.

“The food is absolutely amazing,” Merrow said.

Laurie Joseph was at the counter, talking with Veilleux and savoring the kibbeh sanieh. “I had it last week and it was delicious — and the meat comes from Joseph’s Market, he told me. Oh, my God, this is good.”

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