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Made in Vermont

Pane e Salute celebrates Italian food

WOODSTOCK, Vt. -- You might think that when the owners of a stylish 22-seat storefront restaurant looked around town for a better space last year, one of their criteria would have been room for more tables. But then you wouldn'tunderstand how Caleb Barber and Deirdre Heekin do things.

Five months ago, Barber and Heekin, proprietors ofOsteria Pane e Salute (``bread and health" in Italian) moved from a street-front spot in the center of this picture-perfect New England town to a location up a flight of stone stairs, completely out of view. Seating capacity: same as before, though the owners did gain four stools at a tiny bar.

Pane e Salute is a classic Italian tavern, or osteria, that celebrates the authentic food of many regions in Italy. You canorder a little pizza with a crust so thin you wonder if it's a cracker, or large shrimp still in their shells -- with heads and tails intact -- clustered on the plate without a sauce, beside braised escarole. ``I want the experience to be as genuine as possible," says Barber, 40, who does the cooking. Heekin, 39, runs the dining room and orders the wines.

``We had a loyal enough local customer base so we didn't need to have street frontage," she says. So after 10 years in business, theydecided to stay small, concentrate on the quality of what they offer, take time each week to do other things (read, write, run, garden), and return to Italy for several weeks a year to refresh theirfluency and learn new dishes. Both had learned to speak Italian and cook the classics on a year-long honeymoon in Italy 15 years ago.

It's a nice life if you can get it. But the pair have worked hard to explain what they're doing, make this traditional food, and present their sometimes surprising offerings (rosemary cake didn't fly in Woodstock; neither did grape tart). And their business has evolved. What began as a bakery with panini and soups became a full-service lunch place with dinner on weekends. ``We had only wanted to open a little restaurant in keeping with what we had learned in Italy," she says. They eventually phased out the baked goods, then the lunches, and began dinner five nights a week.

Local innkeepers and former Londoners David Livesley and Dora Foschi, who opened The Woodstocker Inn nine months ago, can't get over having a real Italian spot in their town. ``We were amazed to find such a restaurant in Vermont," says the British-born Livesley. ``We spent a lot of time in Italy. I think our knowledge of Italian cuisine is fairly broad."

Livesley, who considers himself an accomplished home baker and cooks elaborate breakfasts for guests, loves the bread -- `` It's simple and fantastic" -- and whatever risotto is on the menu. He says that Barber and Heekin ``have not gone off the boil," by which he means that their restaurant is still thriving a decade later. Places that are run by the same people for many years often go stale, he says. When you go to Italy, ``you think of the memory you had on your holiday 10 years ago. You go back and you have exactly the same experience."

Staying fresh means that Barber and Heekin are at it all the time. ``Even when we'd rather be thinking and talking about other things, we're thinking and talking about the business," says Barber. He can't remember a moment when they were quarreling and working. ``If we need to hash something out, that will usually happen somewhere else or much earlier in the day. Any unresolved issues wait until the show's over."

Both former modern dancers, the two attended Middlebury College, studied with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company in New York, and formed The Horse You Rode In On dance company before they went into the restaurant business. Now they rely on their experience choreographing for an audience.

Heekin is graceful in the dining room, opening wine bottles and stopping at tables. She'll uncork any bottle in the house as long as you order two glasses. Dining room manager Olga Martin helps her two nights a week; on the other nights, Barber goes between the kitchen and dining room. He works with pastry chef and sous chef Erlé LaBounty in the kitchen, which Barber designed. Even the dish rack was custom built. When he takes his turn on dish duty, he appreciates the way the kitchen works.

Yes, the chef and his sous do all the dishes, and the couple have no outside cleaning crew in the dining room. She says they're both neat. ``When I vacuum, I vacuum the rug," says Heekin. Her husband, she adds, does the rug and the floors around it.

The couple divvy up all of the other work. Both do administrative tasks, and though there's some overlap, he says, that's good because each keeps an eye on record keeping and planning. Both are responsible for the understated and stylish elements in the place. She puts a single large branch of apple blossoms in a straight-sided glass vase and floats lemons on the surface of the water, then sets it on a galvanized aluminum bar they designed and had made. A large mirror on one side of the room reflects the tabletops, with their kraft -paper covers over white linens. If you order ordinary tap water, it arrives in wine bottles. And if you peek into the kitchen, the first thing you notice is a large bouquet. When they opened, a friend brought flowers to congratulate the couple. Heekin had already decorated the dining room, so they set the bouquet in the kitchen. Now there's always one there.

Things like that happen. Not everything the couple does has its origins in Italy, and the menu changes every few days. They get local ingredients as they come into season, calling Black River Produce to see what's in and looks especially good. A few herbs are in a planter outside the front door, and more grow around their hillside home nearby. A recent menu featured specials of mushroom salad with celery leaf, calamari salad, and pork and lamb meatballs. The pigs are locally raised, if possible, and they sometimes get a calf ``and use it stem to stern." Last summer they made their own prosciutto. There are three or four antipasti, pasta, and main courses (listed as primi and secondi), plus cheeses, a luscious cornmeal-almond cake, housemade gelato, and LaBounty's smooth and rich truffles. A fixed-price menu costs $36.50, and the plate-size pizzas are $8.50 to $12.

Pizza is made daily with a biga, a natural starter also used for the bread. Barber was working as a baking apprentice near Rignano sull'Arno, south of Florence, and the couple were living with a family in a village near Greve at the edge of Chianto Classico, where the family had a tiny weekend osteria. The oven was wood-fired, he says, ``and they made the best pizza I've ever eaten. That's where I learned to make that style." Today, Barber makes the dough without measuring.

On their days off, which they take midweek, the couple is likely to try a dish at home that they're still working out, or they have ``snack dinner," as they call it: cheese, cornichons, salumi, bread, and a glass of wine. Five years ago, they wrote ``Pane e Salute: Food and Love in Italy and Vermont" (Invisible Cities Press), and Heekin is interested in morewriting. They both enjoyed designing the restaurant and are starting to think about other projects. A local artisan might begin making their ceramic and glassware designs, which they'll use on their tables and sell as well, along with Italian linens and glassware. Though neither dances professionally anymore, in Argentina last fall they took tango lessons. They'd like to continue that in Vermont, too.

Meanwhile, they've got plenty of dancing to do at the restaurant. Their training was in ballet, modern, and improvisation, and some nights, when the kitchen is slammed and the adrenaline is rushing, Heekin says, ``that has been hugely helpful."

Osteria Pane e Salute, Upstairs at 61 Central St., Woodstock, Vt., 802-457-4882, .