If you’ve met up with Tony Callendrello around town, you can sense he has a passion for the local community.
That love of community, and desire to be a part of it, led Tony and his wife Regina to move from the outskirts of town, to the downtown area after their children were grown. They like being able to walk wherever they want to go and it seems like I see Tony everywhere. Many mornings you will see him at St. Anthony’s Bakery, among a group of regulars who gather to catch up on local happenings.
Tony’s other passion is wine.
The longtime Exeter resident has found a way to embrace wine and community at his newly opened wine bar Vino e Vivo. Nestled at the bottom of a narrow walkway, in a cozy alcove that previously held Two Flights Down, the new wine bar and restaurant held its soft opening last week. It’s currently open Wednesday through Saturday at 4 p.m. and the response was overwhelming.
“We had people sitting on the steps at ten to four,” Tony said of their opening.
The intimate 24 seat restaurant and bar served 59 guests Friday night and 42 on Saturday, of which Tony estimated half were from Exeter. Many had walked, something he loved to hear.
“They appreciated the food. They appreciated the wine,” he said of initial feedback.
Tony and his wife have traveled extensively to regions of the world where wine is made during the past decade. They’ve been to Napa Valley, Sonoma, Rome, Tuscany, Provence, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Along the way, Tony often thought about opening a wine bar in Exeter. As he looked toward his retirement, his wife nudged him along, as she knew he would not be the type content to sit back and relax. He’d need a project. The opportunity to buy the space on Water Street came at just the right time and it was an ideal location.
“It had the right feel,” he said of the space, which he says has the feeling of walking down a little alley in Europe and finding a wine bar frequented by locals. “That’s the feeling I tried to evoke with this place.”
The sign at the top of the stairs reads, wine, friends, food, a nod to the philosophy of the place. Tony references the book The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg as inspiration for the culture he wants to create at Vino e Vivo. The book centers around what it takes to build a sense of community, pointing out that people have their home and their work, but that they also need a third place where community is built. For Tony, his mornings at St. Anthony’s are a time of community building. He hopes the wine bar fills the same type of space in the evening for people.
“You can engage in conversation, kid each other, make jokes,” he said. “That’s what I wanted this place to be.”
It’s not the first time he’s looked to play a role in reviving a building downtown. A few years back, Tony served as the chairman of the nonprofit Exeter Theater Company, which organized to try to revive the defunct Ioka Theater. It was disappointing to many that the group was not successful, but he took away a good feeling about the people in town. “I saw how Exeter can come together as a community,” he said of the way people rallied to see the theater saved.
On a smaller scale, Tony’s complete overhaul of the former Two Flights Down space, helped revitalize another little piece of the downtown. The inside of the building flooded on a regular basis, with an area that resembled a waterfall coming down the wall every time it rained. The town’s Public Works department figured out the issue and made a fix, clearing the way for renovations to begin in early February.
Tony said the support from the town for his project, including 79-E relief, a state program that offers tax relief to building owners rehabbing downtown areas, made it financially possible to fully invest in repairing the building. Darren Winham, the town’s economic development director, said this type of project is a perfect example of how economic incentives should work.
“It provides public benefit, encourages highest and best use of space, local employment and private investment,” he said. “In Tony's case, and he went full-on John Hammond - he spared no expense."
The entire space was gutted and rebuilt, to include a new kitchen area, floors, exposed rock and brick, as well as an impressive wall wine display behind the bar. Tony worked with a well-known restaurant designer who has designed Barbara Lynch’s restaurants in Boston. Chef Jackson Casey was on board early enough in the process to be able to work with the designer and contractors on the kitchen layout, where Tony says he can turn out “world class food” in an extremely compact space.
Casey has cooked with both Evan Hennessey, who recently won “Chopped” on the Food Network, and Lee Frank, of Otis. While the food is a big draw, including handcrafted pasta and locally sourced ingredients, the focus at Vino e Vivo is on the wine. They have 25 wines by the glass and another 25 by the bottle. They also offer two pour sizes to enable guests to try a new wine without committing to a whole glass.
Tony selected the wine list with an eye toward offering wines not seen in the area, but staying within a price point that is in line with other restaurants in town. The wine list will evolve during different times of the year, with more roses on the list in the summer, and heartier reds added in winter.
“I think in Exeter there are people who are interested in good food. I wasn’t convinced there would be a market for a wine bar until Otis opened,” he said, adding response to Otis bolstered his decision to move forward with his concept.
As Vino e Vivo prepared for their second week in Exeter, Tony was thrilled with the reception from guests. He envisions the wine bar as place people will get to know others from the community, learn who their neighbors are, what’s important to people and “if they drink of glass of wine while they’re doing it, even better.”
Count me in.
— Lara Bricker is a former staff writer for the Exeter News-Letter, the author of two books of non-fiction and an Exeter resident. She can be reached at email@example.com on Facebook at Lara Bricker Author or on Twitter @larabricker