by Don Dawson
WOOL: For those in our listening area that might not be familiar with Darlene Doane of Pizza Stone fame, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started with that side of your business.
Darlene: OK. So, when I came to Vermont and I landed up in Andover, I was in real estate. I owned an inn. I loved it, it was wonderful, and it was just up in Andover, and it was spectacular. And then we went through a really hard time when the recession hit because the real estate market dropped out and all the things that we were doing kind of went by the wayside, everything really stopped working. This is 2007, 2008 and we had already done the Airbnb concept, back then. We had like eight or ten families that would come and stay every year. And I had heard back from about eight of them saying that they lost everything in the recession. I think two of them had worked for Enron. So, it’s just like, OK, normally the rentals would support the house. And then we could go work on our real estate and keep things afloat and that would keep us moving forward. Well, it all fell apart. I lost everything. I lost the house. And so, I’m one of those people where, I might be down for a little bit, but not down that long. And so, I decided, along with a dear friend of mine, he’s like “I’ve always wanted a pizzeria”. I’m like, well people need to eat even during these very difficult times. I feel like going out to dinner can be a positive thing. So, we created a Pizza Stone. And I wanted people to be able to come out. I wanted people to be able to afford pizza and a couple of beers and feel like they’re out and about and enjoying themselves, even though they might be struggling at home. And that’s kinda how it all started.
And I started farm to table back then. I went to every single local farm in the area, and I collected as much stuff as they would let me have. And I created the pizzas that we have to this dayBut when we started it was like we got we got breakfast sausage and then we had the Gouda and I’m like, Oh my God, Gouda Morning with breakfast sausage. So that’s how we kind of came up with the names. Vermont Homegrown speaks for itself. Pizza Stone – bunch of stoners. We had the Maui Wowie and all that.
WOOL: What year was this?
DD: That was 2008. We opened a tiny little hole in the wall, 600 square feet across town. Not in the same building we’re in right now. Sometimes I wished we’d stayed there and never left. But after 2 1/2 years, I wanted to expand and grow and the beer that was coming from Vermont – I wanted a beer bar. I love live music. I was always a big live music person. So, we ended up in the old salsa plant (in Chester, VT). Now the salsa plant was vacant for seven years and we went in, I had a vision. I walked in and saw I can make this cool. It’s gonna be raw. It’s not going to be high end. It’s going to be for people to come out and have good beer, good music and good food. And that’s kinda where I am. And I still do farm to table. I work with as many farms as I did back then. Fresh pesto, well in the summertime it’s great because there’s so much local produce. But in the Wintertime, it becomes much more difficult, you can’t do that as much. But every summer I’ve put out there, hey, bring me, the overflow of your garden and I’ll get you a gift certificate for pizza. So that’s how we started. That’s how Pizza Stone started. Part of the origin story was that my son was very ill. He needed a place to work. He had been sick since he was 11 years old. He helped me build the Pizza Stone. He trained everybody how to throw pizza. And he was really like a huge catalyst for me staying in business because he really could not work other places because he was so sick. And he ended up passing away in 2019. It was just kind of crazy. So, I was just, my God, I want to throw in the towel but, I can’t. My son needs a place to be. I was gonna turn everything over to him and it all changed when he passed.
WOOL: So, as you said, you’ve been a long, long supporter of local and regional music, which frankly is great to have in our area. What led you to be such a great underwriter of local music?
DD: I just loved the many festivals. I love Barnaby’s (what is Barnaby’s?), I love going to all the live shows I became super close with many of the bands right away. The Blind Owl Band is one of my favorite bands that we first started hanging out with, right when Barnaby’s first started so about 12 years ago. I just was really good to them and they’re really good to me. Next thing you know, they’re sending me all their friends and so it just became one of those things where it’s like musicians are pretty spectacular. They are their own breed. Largely starving artists and I’m always like the big mother to all of them. I’m giving them places to stay, food to eat and then I push them along to the next gig I just hooked in, I just became a draw because people really loved the space. Because it was so casual. I was taking care of the musicians, whether people showed up to listen to the music or not. I made sure I took care of them. It’s just one of those things you have to do. I just love live music.
WOOL: Did you used to play an instrument or sing?
DD: A long time ago, as a kid. I played the piano. I played the clarinet. I did really well at that but then over the years, I just dropped all that. I haven’t picked up an instrument in a long time.
WOOL: Well, not to put you on the spot then, but other than the Blind Owl Band, do you have any other local acts or bands that our listeners might like to learn about?
DD: I love all the local bands. I mean the Vermont Moonlighters have a special space in my heart because of Robin (Lloyd). Robin used to work for me. And she said I really wanna sing. So, I got her singing with a couple of people. And now sings with the Vermont Moonlighters. But I love Swing Low. I love The Kathy Martin Trio. Zach from Throwing Stones. You get a little bit of the hippie vibe going on. Of course. David Dominick’s been fantastic. You know, he’s a simple solo artist. He doesn’t sing, he just plays instrumental music. He’s out of Manchester Vermont. The Stinky Boots Band, which has some of the members of the Blind Owl Band, and then there’s Moon Hollow which is the brother of one of the members from Blind Owl. They played here recently. Peter Simoneau from Bayou X, I mean really love all the music. So, to be able to plug into all the local music and get artists like Peter but then you get Peter and two other bands. You get to know the people from Swing Low and you get two other bands. If you can’t play, can one of your other bands play? It’s kind of like a network and It’s good to be connected to all these people.
Pizza Stone has become a destination for music no matter what and I’m hoping to bring those bands to Ciao Popolo. I’m having the Conniption Fits. They’re guys with high energy and they’re crazy and they’re not cheap. We’re looking to have them in for a January date.
So, my goal would be to make this the entrance (referring to the old Hotel entrance at Ciao Popolo). So, people will come in and this will be the lounge. So, I’m gonna have music playing so that when people come in and music is playing, you can stop, have a cocktail before going into dinner. And afterwards, people can come back here and have dessert. So, I kind of want to use these two rooms more. So, we’ll have Conniption Fits because it’s a bigger band. And we’ll have dancing and all that. Like the night of our Halloween Masquerade Ball, I’m having a band called Solstice play. They’re like a funky jazz, reggae, kind of soulful band, and they’re learning a bunch of Halloween songs for it. But I’m also having David Dominic, who plays the guitar dressed up as a minstrel and walk through the crowd. It’s gonna be quite the evening. I have a lot of fun planned.
WOOL: What was the inspiration for starting Ciao Popolo?
DD: A friend of mine said you really need to talk to Tony Elliot. They would really like someone to help Gary (Smith) open Popolo. I’ve wanted to be in this space for over 10 years. I love this space. It’s beautiful. I’ve always been attracted to it. It’s definitely haunted, so that’s right up my alley.
WOOL: Is it really?
DD: Oh yeah. Lights go on and off, stuff happens. Oh yeah, it’s crazy. But the thing of it is, Gary and I come from two
different worlds, but not so different. He was really immersed in the Boston music scene. I came from Boston. The first time when I was 18 years old, I went to a little bar in Beverly, Mass. And I said, “who the hell is this band? It was the Ramones. I mean that’s how old I am. But to come here, I was gonna bring live music here no matter what, because I was doing it at Pizza Stone so I might as well do it here. I know that Gary loved to have live music here, but I want to have a little bit more of a twist. I wanted to be a little bit more laid back; a little bit less formal. I know that people would pay for tickets and find the chairs up there (referring to the back room at Popolo) and sit very quietly and listen to the musician. That can still happen every once in a while. I don’t mind doing that, but that’s not where I’m at. I have this band called Faux Paws. They’re coming in on November 30th. This is three guys, two of them are brothers. They travel all over the world and they have like six or seven or eight different types of mandolins, guitars, instrumentals. And so, they’re gonna do November 30th, they’re gonna come here, do a ticketed event. We’re gonna set them up. We’re gonna set up chairs for people. But it’s also gonna be dinner and then the show. So that’s probably the most formal thing I plan on doing here.
You know, if someone would like to approach us, and say I would really like to do a few things at your place, we could work that out. I’m open minded to that, but this is so new and it’s such a spectacular venue. It really is a lovely space and I think it really wants people here. It was tired of being empty.
I know I’m not going to fit in everybody’s back pocket. I mean, I know that, but that’s OK.
WOOL: Alright, so you probably don’t have a lot of free time, but what do you like to do when you are not working?
DD: One, I actually love spending time with my daughter. My youngest daughter is here with me and she’s helping me manage Pizza Stone. And so that I’ve been here, and she’s been there. We don’t get a lot of free time together, but I do like to go eat really good food. I will go somewhere else and find dinner somewhere. And I like a nice, cooked meal for me who doesn’t like that? Like last time I had off; I went into Boston to go see Billy Strings. And so that’s the thing, I’ll find something going on somewhere else and I’ll take the time because I only have, you know, 36 hours or so, but I’ll try to put myself out there. If not, I’m home doing laundry. Or at the moment, I’m taking care of my son’s dog. We’re told he doesn’t have much time so we’re trying to spoil him right now.
I love to go to new places. I went to The Mystic down in Manchester and had a beautiful dinner and it’s just so nice to just like go somewhere, where people don’t know me and just kind of enjoy myself and go out and meet up with friends. But you know spending time with my daughter and getting out of here at least little I do go to Massachusetts a good bit. That’s where my folks are. So, every three weeks I try to get there.
WOOL: This next question is for me personally. I’ve always been really blown away by your beer menu at the Pizza Stone. Do you curate the beers, or do you have a staff member that manages that?
DD: I’ve been on top of this from day one. I had a guy walk in the other day. I have a sign on my wall, you’ve probably seen it. We proudly do not serve Anheuser Busch products. So, this guy was really offended. He was like, what’s really what’s going on, are you doing that because of the whole gay thing (referring to the Bud Light Dylan Mulvaney controversy). And frankly, if anyone is supportive of gay people. It’s me.
WOOL: Clearly not a regular or someone from around town.
DD: No and I said for one that sign has been there for 14 years. I said I’ve never supported Bud because one, it’s a European company. They sold out. They put Americans out of work. They watered down their beer and told everybody it was the same. The bottom line is this, there’s so much Vermont beer out there and it’s spectacular. Why would you wanna drink Bud Light? You can get the best Pilsner, a Crisp local Lager that’s from a Vermont company, that’s gonna blow anybody out of water. So, he looked at me and there’s a huge Pride flag on the wall. There’s trans stuff everywhere. He looks up at in the ceiling, there’s a trans flag hanging there. I looked at him and said, you can judge. He said, you should put a little tag letting people know why you don’t support Bud. And I said, I don’t have to do that. I know who I am. I know what I am, and I don’t need to prove myself so I’m not doing that.
Almost like the same thing when we had drag queen story hour at my place because the library wouldn’t have it and I said “yes” immediately and then of course, I’m getting death threats on the phone by people from Florida. And I’m like, stay in Florida. I couldn’t believe it.
But when it comes to the beer selection, usually because we’ve had such great taps for a while, the reps will call and say, we’ve got something new. Not many people want it. And I just say, I want it. Just bring me a couple logs or whatever and we’ll give them a shot. We’re constantly revolving logs. The only thing we regularly keep is Downey Cider and that’s not even a Vermont company. It’s one of the few. PBR, also not a Vermont company but it has its own vibe. But we usually always have a SwitchBack. And we usually always have a Wizard, a double IPA from Burlington Beer Company. So, there’s like two doubles, three IPAs, at least a stout or a porter, a copper Ale, a Pilsner, and then something funky.
For here (Ciao Popolo) we only have 6 taps. So, we’re going to have Fiddlehead, PBR, Switchback, and a Champagne we have on tap because we do a ton of Champagne drinks. It just makes it easier. We’ll probably do an Upper Pass Porter or Stout, and we’ll have one other IPA from a Vermont company because I want to support as many Vermont brewers as possible. I want to keep that vibe going.
WOOL: Tell us what’s coming up for you over the next few months?
DD: What’s happening this weekend (September 23) is on Saturday night I’m doing a late night in the lounge. I’m hoping to continue to do that after the shows in Bellows Falls Opera House. So, when the shows let out, we’ll have late night in the Lounge. We’re gonna have a charcuterie, some desserts, some coffee and after dinner drinks. This Sunday (September 24) we’re having a dance party. The dance party is from 5 to 9 and I want to do that at least once a month. Just a DJ, blasting some music. Clear out the tables and let everybody have a good time, especially through the winter months. Then we’ll be having the Masquerade party, which will be on October 28th. I want everybody to wear whatever they want, more like Carnival or a Venetian Masquerade. It’ll be 21 or older. I’ve hired a burlesque team. This woman comes out with her husband. He plays guitar. She dances. She brings a couple of her Burlesque girls and a guy. And they’ll do a show, and they do a taxi. We’ll also have a drag once a month. Something different, something fun to get people out of their slumber this winter. I plan on doing a couple of wine tastings. I want to do it for certain pairings like my scallops or our tenderloin. little, tiny dishes and pair them with some of our wines that we have.
I really just want to keep evolving the menu. Right now, because there’s some things people love, and some things people don’t.
WOOL: Do you classify your menu as something specific? Italian American? Or French for example?
DD: What I call it is……it’s as farm-to-table as I possibly can. I go to Boston to get fresh fish. We’re working with Wagyu Farm, and we’ll hopefully be working with Riverhill and getting some duck from them. So I’m trying to do as much local product as possible. But what it is, is a hearty Italian flare with a local punch. People are going to want beef stew in a bread bowl, and I want to be able to do that, you know what I mean? I want to be able to bring in homemade meatloaf, if we get some great Wagyu in. I do pastas. I do three, four, five pastas at a time. I want to keep the Italian fare going. Puff pastries – I love my charcuterie boards. We have spaghetti and meatballs. You can’t just get spaghetti and meatballs anywhere anymore. It’s not strictly 100% Italian. There’s too much other good food here in Vermont to be able to be strictly Italian. I mean, blue cheese is not Italian. You can’t truly categorize that as Italian.
WOOL: Well, that takes you through the end of November. Anything else to round out 2023?
DD: Right now, I’m encouraging people to contact me for company Christmas parties, birthday parties. I’ve already had a baby shower. I’ve got a bridal shower coming in the spring. I have a 60th birthday party I’m setting up for just before Christmas. I’m doing FACT TV’s party October 5th we’re doing their company party early. So, I’m encouraging people to get in touch with me hopefully before the end of October to book any type of holiday party and we can do anything. We can have small parties in the small room. You’ve got 15 people in your company, and you want to have a nice private party. You have 75 to 100 people. We can do that too. We can work with most size events. And we’ll be able to keep the dining room open. We’ll just keep the doors shut and people could have their party here in the Lounge. For the masquerade ball, it’s gonna be the full place, like we’re shutting down service that night. It’s $75 a ticket, all food included and entertainment. You just have to pay for your drinks.
We’re also doing the dedication to the Andrews Inn Sign on October 11th. We’re not open on Wednesdays but we’ll open up specifically for that dedication. Full service we’ll be available that night but we’re gonna dedication in here (the Lounge) and then everybody wants to stay for dinner, we’ll have the dining room open.
WOOL: Well Darlene thank you so much for taking the time out of your frenetic schedule to chat. We wish you much success here at Ciao Popolo.
If you haven’t been to Ciao Popolo, it’s located in downtown Bellows Falls at 36 Square. It’s best to call in advance and make a reservation. To make reservations visit www.ciaopopolo.com or email ciaopopoloVT@gmail.com or you can call (802) 732-8433.
Ciao Popolo are very active on social media and you can find more about them via their website or on Facebook – www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100093546752899
Instagram – www.instagram.com/ciao_popolo_vt
Vermont Moonlights – vermontmoonlighters.com
Blind Owl – www.theblindowlband.com/
Stinky Boots Band www.facebook.com/Stinkybootsstringband/
Moon Hollow – www.facebook.com/moonhollowband/
Bayou X – www.bayouxband.com/
David Domenick – www.daviddomenick.com/
Conniption Fits – www.conniptionfits.com/
Solstice – www.facebook.com/SoulsticeVt/
Faux Paws Band – thefauxpawsmusic.com/