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This take on Italian is 'something new for Burlington'

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- With its tree-lined avenues, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, and small stores selling everything from ski gear to hemp products, this is a fun-loving college town. The pedestrian mall is crawling with activity. But half a block down a sloping side street leading to the Lake Champlain waterfront is a quiet restaurant with a serious chef.

That's Kevin Cleary. Last year, the chef and his wife and partner, Kathi, left their small four-year-old Gloucester restaurant, L'Amante, and moved north, giving the new place the same name as the old one.

Familiar to Kevin Cleary from his training at the New England Culinary Institute in nearby Montpelier, Burlington seemed like a good place to open a larger restaurant. The chef had worked in the former Pignoli restaurant in Boston and in Waltham's Il Capriccio. He thought a larger place would give him flexibility, maybe even an extra day off once in a while. Boston, with its urban management hurdles and six-figure liquor licenses, "was out of the question," he says.

Kevin Cleary had no trouble translating his menu -- traditional Italian food made with local ingredients -- to his new home state. He uses Vermont sources extensively: honey from Montpelier and produce from a tiny Burlington farm. He gets fish deliveries six days a week and still makes everything in-house, even the bread, with a minimal staff. Kathi Cleary is the manager, sommelier, and hostess.

Cleary's flavorful yet disciplined take on Italian culinary tradition was "something new for Burlington," she says. The couple admits that word has been slow to spread. Still, after a year in business, the response has been warm enough to keep L'Amante afloat.

"We're about where we thought we'd be after a year," says Kevin Cleary. The restaurant has developed a small but devoted following, won over by the couple's warmth and dedication as much as by the carefully selected wine list and menu. Walk-in customers often become regulars after inhaling the aroma of a squash-blossom fritter stuffed with taleggio and drizzled with truffle oil and honey.

In a town where it sometimes seems that everyone has the munchies, Cleary's sensuous and thoughtful food can come across as upscale. This is an impression the Clearys work hard to dispel. "You can come here in a T-shirt and flip-flops," says Kathi Cleary, 38. "You can order just an appetizer and a glass of wine if you like," says her husband, also 38. "My biggest fear is someone having a bad meal," he adds.

That dedication comes at a price. Their quality of life is better than it was in Gloucester, but restaurant work remains all-consuming for the couple.

They're at L'Amante 12 hours a day, and the extra day off remains a distant dream. "I still haven't figured out how to let go," the chef says.

T. SUSAN CHANGL'Amante is at 126 College St., Burlington, Vt., 802-863-5200.

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