Fellowship, Food and Friends: Exeter’s Vino e Vivo Creates a ‘Great Good Place’

As they step down into the narrow, brick-lined walkway just off Water Street, visitors to downtown Exeter find themselves at the ornate wooden and glass doors that lead inside to Vino e Vivo – a portal into a space designed to be both transformational and comfortably familiar.

It’s just how Tony Callendrello would have it.

Inspired by the wine bars of Europe, Vino e Vivo (literally, “Wine and Life,”) Owner/Manager Callendrello has crafted a casual food and wine experience that transports diners to a welcoming world where fellowship is just as important as the fare.

“This location, for me, is ideal,” Callendrello says. “It’s a little off the beaten path – where you can get the feeling like you’re in Rome or Paris or Madrid. It’s tucked down this alley, and it’s a warm and comfortable place filled with people having a good time. That was really my goal, but the second goal is to have it become a place that helps build community.”

The vision for Vino e Vivo was born in the imagination of the Exeter resident, but part of its soul sprang from the pages of a book: “The Great Good Place,” by Ray Oldenburg. The book posits that for a healthy existence, people should live in three realms – the home, the workplace and a social third place. It’s in that third place that Callendrello sees Vino e Vivo existing.

“People need a place where they can go and meet with other people they know, and with people they don’t know,” he says. “It crosses socioeconomic boundaries, racial boundaries, age boundaries and gender boundaries. It gets people communicating in a way that helps them understand points of view rather than being in an echo chamber all the time.”

Toward that end, Callendrello built an intimate space that allows for such experiences. The 24-seat wine bar/restaurant sits just below street level, and welcomes guests with surfaces crafted from as much natural material as possible. The bar and stairs are made from reclaimed poplar, and the floor from reclaimed white oak.

“I’m a big fan of reclaimed wood,” Callendrello says. “It has a warmth and texture new wood doesn’t have. It adds a story you don’t get from new wood.”

Large windows cast light onto the copper, glass, wood and stone that work in concert to create the almost tangible feeling that you’re sipping and dining in a wine cellar.

“The bar top is copper, the foot rails and the hand rails are copper,” Callandrello says. “Most dramatically, though, the exposed foundation at the front of the building, which is our back-bar, is where we put our wines. We back-lit the wine racks and the stone work is illuminated, which creates a really dramatic feel. People love taking pictures in front of the wall of wine.”

He also intentionally filled the role of Chef de Cuisine with someone who could extend that welcoming, yet sometimes surprising feel – Chef Jackson Casey, who served first as a sous chef at Stages, in Dover, and then went on to work under Ben Falk of Whole System Design, Dan Barber at Blue Hill Stone Barns, Jake Bickelhaupt at the two-Michelin starred 42 Grams, and Acadia in the south loop of Chicago. When Callendrello revealed his plan to the longtime family friend, however, he knew it was time to come home.

“He loved the idea and jumped in whole-heartedly,” Callendrello says. “He was ready to run his own kitchen. He helped design the menu, he helped design the kitchen so it would work – he’s been a terrific asset. I can’t say enough good things about Jackson and the food he turns out.

“He’s so creative in that little shoebox of a kitchen we have. We make our own pastas and ice cream, and even the Dijon mustard and ricotta cheese. I’m astounded at the quality of local suppliers he’s been able to work with and get the freshest ingredients from.”

The menu, which changes seasonally (or “without notice,” Callendrello says, laughing,) includes everything from bar snacks like warm olives, nuts and a selection of cheeses and charcuterie, to full entrees and incredibly creative desserts. A recent sampling of the expertly-prepared entrees included house-made pasta with rutabaga puree, braised beef of mushroom duxelle, wilted kale and eggplant conserva; Short Creek Farm pork, smoked carrot puree, braised fenne, radicchio and confit turnip; and seared New England scallops with celery root puree, braised Napa cabbage, pickled cucumber and roasted sunchokes.

“It’s creative food using familiar ingredients, prepared with a higher, more civilized technique,” he says.

When Callendrello gets a chance to take a breath and grab a bite, what’s his go-to at Vino e Vivo?

“While all of the entrees are wonderful, the house-made pasta is extraordinary in whatever form it is,” he says. “Whether it’s stuffed pasta or a noodle veg made with braised beef or mushrooms, the pasta dishes are fantastic.

“However, the seafood is often raved about. We get it right off the boat, whether it’s scallops or cod or another white fish, and Chef – he really prepares it with respect for the quality of the ingredients.”

Of course, in a destination with ‘Vino’ in the name, choosing the proper glass is important. Callendrello is a self-described lifelong wine enthusiast who has been trying, studying and drinking wines for many years. His preference, however, tends to lean toward Italian offerings – though like its owner, the wine list at Vino e Vivo is well-rounded, creative and thoughtful.

“We probably have more Italian wines than any other geographic area, but that said, we created a wine list with wines people like,” he says. “We’ve got a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a Cabernet – but we also try to offer wines from lesser-known regions and lesser-known grapes in addition to those wines.”

Callendrello cites a wine made with the Kerner grape – Cembra Kerner – from Trentino, Italy, as the perfect example of something unusual that sits alongside perfectly-paired food wines like the Cuvaison Chardonnay from Napa, the lighter-bodied red Aurelien Verdet Morey Saint Denis or the Humberto Canale Malbec Estate – a smooth, elegant Argentinean red that pairs perfectly with some of Chef Casey’s more bold creations.

Vino e Vivo offers a wide variety of wines by the bottle, glass and half-glass.

“The by-the-glass program is fairly large,” Callendrello says. “It’s gotten larger than we originally planned. We’ve got about 40 wines by the glass and another 30 by the bottle, which is fairly large for a small space.”

Duck into that Exeter alleyway, and Vino e Vivo’s deep dive into dining becomes apparent, as does its owner’s passion for what he does.

“I just love it,” he says. “I love hospitality. I love making people feel good about food and drink and feel special while they enjoy a good glass of wine and a meal and a laugh. People very often want to sit at the bar and hear the story behind the wine or the cheese we’re serving, to hear about the space, what it was before and what it was like turning it into a wine bar. That’s what keeps me going every day.”

Vino e Vivo
163 Water St., Exeter, NH
(603) 580-4268

From the May issue of Celebrate Magazine.