I first noticed the Popolo sign as I drove through Bellows Falls two summers ago. Then I craned my neck so much that I almost crashed my car. The sign was innocuous enough: a white board covered in pastel orbs and sans-serif lettering. The appearance of a new restaurant in Bellows Falls was sufficiently startling, however, to warrant a long double take.
Bellows Falls is a community with many riches. The one-mile-square village teems with talented artists and old-school businesses, including an arcade and an art restorer. A kick-ass community radio station and a public-access television studio dole out eclectic music and civic banter. There’s a 19th-century railway station, an opera house with a huge movie screen, a hydroelectric dam, one of the oldest canals in the country and a gorgeous brick downtown. Yet, like many former mill towns along the Connecticut River, Bellows Falls has teetered on the edge of a dramatic revival that never quite arrives. Its food scene is a barometer of those changing fortunes.
A few years back, when I covered Bellows Falls as a reporter for a local daily, I could begin the day with eggs at the Miss Bellows Falls Diner, tuck into a lunchtime BLT at Vermont Pretzel & Cookie Company and grab fresh meatballs in the evening at Boccelli’s on the Canal. In between, I might hit Fat Frank’s for kielbasa or tap away on my laptop in Hraefnwood Café while waiting to cover a raucous selectboard meeting.
It was a bummer to see that blossoming food scene wither, especially as restaurants and cafés can be so integral to a downtown’s rebirth. A beloved restaurant named Oona’s closed after suffering heavy fire damage in 2006. Boccelli’s closed, too — or rather, became solely an auction house. Fat Frank’s was once the self-proclaimed “wurst place in Bellows Falls,” in reality one of the coolest places to eat in Vermont. It closed last year, as did the Miss Bellows Falls Diner. Soon the only survivors of the town’s once-bustling food scene were the Dari Joy ice cream shop, an old-school Chinese restaurant called Joy Wah, a handful of fast-food joints and the Vermont Pretzel & Cookie Company.
That’s why the first glimpse of the Popolo sign was so sweet and arresting. Since then, I’ve often made the 55-minute drive from my home to eat there. It’s not because Popolo offers the best Negronis or pizza in the state, though they’re both very good. Rather, the restaurant has some kind of X factor — a confluence of place, mission, music and food — that keeps drawing in unlikely regulars like me.
Part of Popolo’s story begins with Gary Smith, former manager of Boston’s Fort Apache Studios, which in the 1980s and ’90s recorded such artists as the Specials, the Pixies, Elliott Smith, Yo La Tengo and Radiohead. Smith was also a producer, working closely with Billy Bragg, Throwing Muses and 10,000 Maniacs.
By the late 1990s, though, he was growing weary of Boston’s pace. “I was moving toward some future I really didn’t look forward to,” Smith says. So he purchased a farm in Walpole, N.H., across the river from Bellows Falls. He knew little about the burg but was soon to learn more.
“Small-town politics are pervasive here,” Smith says. “It’s also small enough that you can make a difference.” He plunged into community life, partnering with artist Charlie Hunter to bring in musical performances; later, he founded radio station WOOL 100.1 FM.
Smith also met and befriended John-Michael Maciejewski, then-manager of the Walpole Grocery. In 2011, “over vodka and cigarettes,” they began talking about opening a restaurant. For Maciejewski, that had to be a wood-fired pizza place.
At the time, the town’s Hotel Windham was undergoing an intense renovation. Much of it had sat unused for decades, and its investors were looking for a restaurant tenant. The brick, four-story hotel has a commanding presence at the town’s center and a rich history that dates back to 1816 and includes a string of fires. Smith and his partners — who included friend Kristen Fehrenbach — came to look. “The ceiling had collapsed, and everything was in shambles. It had been mothballed for 30 years,” recalls Smith.
The partners wanted to create the building’s anchor restaurant, but they lacked capital. In the fall of 2011, they followed the model of Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick and assembled 25 investors for what was to become a community-supported restaurant and concert venue. “We have doctors and we have mechanics here,” Smith says of Bellows Falls. “We wanted a restaurant that could serve a hamburger, that would not just be about fine dining. We also wanted a place where we could work with local agriculture.”
That inclusive ethos inspired the name Popolo, which means “people” in Italian. “As we built menus, we thought, We’re trying to do the people’s work. Let’s just call ourselves ‘the people,’” recalls Smith.
After months of fundraising, planning and renovation, the trio opened Popolo in May 2012. It is airy, elegant and spare, with unadorned white walls, industrial pendant lights and enormous, leaded-glass windows facing Bellows Falls’ central square. Wooden booths line both sides of the dining room, a communal table runs down its middle, and the bar — Popolo’s focal point — is set against a wall of exposed brick.
Fehrenbach, who manages the front of the house, created Popolo’s drink menu. It’s a crushworthy collection for those who care as much about their potables as what’s on their plates. The succinct wine list offers thoughtful by-the-glass choices. Cocktails include local spirits and house infusions, such as the vanilla-and-black-pepper-tinged limoncello in a Winter Lemondrop. Fehrenbach mixes up the Walpole with Old Overholt Rye infused with cocoa nibs from nearby L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates. She also has an ever-changing selection of mocktails, including shrub, a tangy, colonial-era blend of vinegar and fruit juices.
Popolo’s food menu is as broad in style and price as its founders envisioned, encompassing both rustic plates of pasta and carefully composed entrées. A charcuterie board is loaded with salami and olives, panko-crusted fried ravioli is stuffed with chèvre, and luscious triangles of polenta come sheathed in melted Fontina and eggplant caponata. Fresh mussels are piled in a thyme-scented white-wine broth. Entrées and specials include fresh, tender pappardelle slathered in a silky ragù, and flaky roasted cod kissed by a truffle-tinged beurre blanc.
Along with the imaginative apps and the motley-crew people watching on any given night, I treasure two things in particular at Popolo. Those are the occasional appearance of fresh oysters with mignonette (not so common on this side of the state) and the pizza.
The chewy dough has the depth of flavor that comes from a long, lazy rise. The Parma pie, a gooey mass of tomatoes, cheese and pesto, is cosseting and topped with curls of proscuitto. Special pizzas, such as a white pie of smoked mozzarella tumbled with onion-balsamic jam and capped with arugula, are sublime. Much of Popolo’s produce is grown in Windham County, but you wouldn’t know it from the menu. Here, locavorism is a down-low kind of thing.
“We not only bring these people into town, we’ve also put them in direct contact with the agricultural products of their region,” says Smith of Popolo’s diners. “A farmer comes in the back door with some chickens or eggs or arugula, and it goes out into the [dining] room the same day.”
In his 1998 detective novel Bellows Falls, Newfane author Archer Mayor calls the village “seamy” and “developmentally stalled.” Sixteen years later, Smith strikes a more hopeful tone. “We turned on the lights on one end of the street,” he says. “This is a beautiful little town with a piazza at its center that was dark. And now it’s not.”
Popolo, 36 the Square, Bellows Falls, 460-7676. popolomeanspeople.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Pizza of the People"