by Leanne Harple
BARTON — Date night has recently gotten a whole lot fancier in the village of Barton. Last spring, Steve Vazzano and his partner in both life and labor, Maria Hill, took over the lease of the former Parson’s Pub & Grill on Main Street and reopened it as Parson’s Dinner House. Mr. Vazzano now runs the restaurant as its executive chef, while Ms. Hill serves as the pastry chef and alchemist of extraordinary cocktails. In fact, her special concoctions are one of the signature features that have gained Parson’s a widespread reputation.
The restaurant’s main culinary theme is local, seasonal food, and Ms. Hill grows many of her ingredients right in her own gardens, including many of the flavors and garnishes for the cocktails. They includes fresh mint, as well as raspberries for the roseberry cosmopolitans, violets for the violet syrup and the candied violet in the violet martinis, and pears for the restaurant’s most popular drink, the peregrine sherbert martini.
Ms. Hill also provides the kitchen with its hazelnuts, and all the eggs for the desserts, which come from her chickens and her heritage turkeys. Ms. Hill says unpasteurized eggs make a big difference in flavor, and the turkey eggs are also lower in cholesterol. She hopes to eventually provide the restaurant with the turkeys themselves as another local ingredient.
Ms. Hill says that her favorite part of her job is harvesting ingredients for her delicious desserts. She loves picking the fruits and flowers out of her own yard, and then engaging in the alchemy of her ingredients.
As the seasons change, so does the menu. Summer brought many fresh local fruits and vegetables, as well as edible flowers, and as fall turns to winter, the focus is shifting towards root vegetables, hot soups, and savory stews. While the menu does not specifically provide many vegetarian or gluten-free options, both chefs say accommodations can be made.
This is also the case with the “children’s menu.” Technically there is none.
“Encourage the kids to try to eat more like adults,” says Mr. Vazzano, who offers a smaller child-size portion of regular meals for a discount price of $15, including free soft drinks and ice-cream desserts. Ms. Hill says she has also seen families simply order an adult portion and split it between two children.
Ms. Hill and Mr. Vazzano are no strangers to the business of food. Both credit their early influence and inspiration to their families. In Ms. Hill’s case, she remembers growing up with her grandmother as a child on Cape Cod. Her grandmother was quite the baker, and she recalls fondly how she would often return home with fresh catches from fishing trips with her grandfather to find that her grandmother had filled their house with the wafting scent of delicious homemade pies. Her extended family was just as passionate about food, as was her church. She recalls how she would practice cooking when she was a little girl, serving her father dishes that he had to try hard to pretend to like.
“My dad would be so polite, but I could tell it was awful,” she said. But she persisted, and continued to teach herself, adding to her collection of recipes through trial and error until she became the accomplished pastry chef she is today. Her dessert menu now includes many delicious items, including an amaretto-white chocolate cheesecake with a hazelnut crust, and a peppermint and white chocolate creme brulee that each make a trip to Parson’s Dinner House worthwhile for the dessert alone.
Mr. Vazzano came into food through the way his family’s business. Growing up, they owned an eatery in Connecticut, called The Three Bears Inn and Restaurant, where he learned to cook.
His father was a chef, and his uncle was a meteorologist, so as he came of age, he felt torn between the two worlds. In the end, the kitchen won out and Mr. Vazzano followed in his father’s footsteps.
Prior to opening Parson’s Dinner House, Ms. Hill and Mr. Vazzano worked together at Gill’s Bar and Grill, at Westmore’s Willoughvale Inn. Mr. Vazzano ran that establishment for a year and a half before, like so many other restaurants, it closed due to COVID. While it was shuttered the Willoughvale was sold. Around that same time Mr. Vazzano happened to stop by Parson’s Pub & Grill for lunch,
While Ms. Hill describes their restaurant’s fare as “fine dining,” Mr. Vazzano prefers to think of it as “upscale comfort food.” Some of the menu options are on the fancier side, such as the duck shnitzel, a mouth-watering blend of sharp and savory, breaded and drizzled in a highly flavorful dried cherry-green peppercorn brown butter, and the gnocchi Bolognese, potato dumplings with fresh basil and toasted garlic. Other options are far more familiar, but no less delicious.
“I have high end stuff and then we have mac and cheese,” says Mr. Vazzano. There’s also pasta, meatloaf, beef, chicken and salmon, and even a cheeseburger on the menu. The owners want there to be something for everyone, even the person who walks in with only $20 in their pocket.
Of all the meals that they serve, Ms. Hill says her personal favorites from Mr. Vazzano’s culinary repertoire are his chicken dishes, his salmon, and especially his Bolognese. The customers agree, she says, and in fact, she has heard from more than one person that the Bolognese is better than the same dish that they’ve had in Italy. Mr. Vazzano is more modest about his own cooking, declining to name any one favorite dish, and saying that he really just loves to cook, and focus on customer satisfaction.
Mr. Vazzano and Ms. Hill both say that they are used to working in larger restaurants, with more seating capacity than their new space has to offer, but it has been nice to get used to the intimate setting.
When they took over the restaurant, it was already adorned with classy Vermont decor, so they didn’t have to make many changes to the interior design or the furniture. One piece of artwork that Ms. Hill did add is a vintage poster from the very first Orleans County Fair, in 1867. The poster was a gift from her neighbors, which had remained rolled up for years. When she opened the restaurant, she knew that it belonged framed on the wall. There’s another one in the back dining room.
Though still recognizable, the new Parson’s is vastly different from the ones that came before it. The Sunday brunch is far more complex than the breakfasts that came before it, a change that Mr. Vazzano and Ms. Hill say made the old-time regulars a little wary at first, but which they have since gotten used to.
The chefs plan to host an Italian Night in the near future, for which they will transform the entire place into an Italian restaurant, with white tablecloths, traditional music, and a special menu. They’ve done it in the past, and say that it is a huge hit.
By opening for dinner only, with the exception of Sunday brunches, Parson’s Dinner House is dodging some of the hiring troubles currently plaguing some other restaurants. It also helps that Mr. Vazzano and Ms. Hill are running the place as a family business, with Ms. Hill’s children eagerly helping out. Her son Morrow is her top server, while another son, Winter, washes dishes and buses tables, and her 14-year-old youngest son, Haven, helps out with dishing out the Everyone Eats program meal, a state-funded solution to providing food security to those in need during the time of COVID. Through the Everyone Eats Program, Parson’s Dinner House serves about 100 free meals a week.
Prior to COVID, Morrow Hill had been about to participate along with two of his peers from school, on a Junior Iron Chef competition inf Chittenden County. The menu would have featured his homemade eggplant parmesan, along with his spinach ravioli. Instead, both dishes have been incorporated into Italian Night, which he now helps Mr. Vazzano to prepare.
Ms. Hill also hopes her daughter, who is in college, will return home over the holidays to help with a bit of waitressing. Because of all of this family assistance, as well as not needing to piece together or overwork a skeleton crew for breakfast and lunch shifts, the restaurant .has been able to remain open when many others are struggling to fill shifts. Really, it’s the way that they want it anyway, so they consider the challenging labor circumstances a lucky push for them to shift business models.
Since they reopened as Parson’s Dinner House on May 5, Mr. Vazzano and Ms. Hill have been feeding a steady stream of loyal customers, who they say, have told them over and over again how much local residents appreciate having a new fine dining establishment in town. Many, they say, have been coming back week after week, just to help ensure that the new restaurant gets on its feet and stays open. Over the summer, Mr. Vazzano said that there was a waitlist for dinner every night. Part of the draw, he says, was his affiliation with the Westmore community, because of his time cooking at the Willoughvale, and the customers who followed him to Barton.
The prices are indicative of fine dining, sizable portions, and good service, at least outside of Chittenden County, and are completely worth every penny. The food is well-presented and more importantly, intensely flavorful. The old-fashioned jazz that pipes through the speakers on a weekend evening provides the perfect atmosphere in which to sip a fancy cocktail, and dine on high quality fare, the likes of which have not been seen in Barton for many years. It is the hope of many locals that this restaurant will stick around, adding another highly welcomed touch of romantic class to the Kingdom.