Connecticut Section 11/18/2006

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48 Hours: From Doughnuts to Dancing

Janet Durrans for The New York Times

Displaying the house specialties at Coffee An’ Donut in Westport.


Published: November 18, 2006


George Ruhe for The New York Times

Country dancing at the Branford Community House.


George Ruhe for The New York Times

Members of the New Haven Country Dancers at a Saturday night dance at the Branford Community House.


9 a.m.: Time to Eat the Doughnuts

The line that ran from the counter inside Coffee An’ Donut out to the sidewalk of Main Street in Westport on a chilly Saturday morning was telling enough. Diane Karle edged her way out the door, stood on the sidewalk and waited. Moments later, a Coffee An’ Donut employee, Mike Limberis, edged his way past to deliver Ms. Karle’s coffee to her. It was counter service, way beyond the counter.

“It’s my favorite spot,” Ms. Karle said, cupping her hands around the container. “Except that it’s so crowded.”

That’s because just about everybody in Westport, and, from the looks of the line, everyone within driving distance, knows about Coffee An’ Donut. Customers have included Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Joseph I. Lieberman and Diane Farrell, whose photos are plastered all over the walls along with the business’s owner, George Vlandis. He has managed to jam the customers, the photos, the U-shaped counter and snugly positioned tables into a spot not much bigger than about 30 by 40 feet, making for an intimacy that makes everyone your friend.

“So many communities have been pulled apart by the malls,” said Mary Ruggiero of Westport, who became a regular several years ago when her Westport friend Elisabeth Rose introduced her to Coffee An’ Donut. “But here you can see plenty of local people.”

The pair had stopped by this day for coffee and breakfast. Despite the name, its cake doughnuts are not the sole menu items. It serves French toast, pancakes and omelets, but the line out front has little to do with the eggs and everything to do with the doughnuts. The restaurant makes its own, including a chocolate doughnut so good that it should probably have a line of its own. “There just aren’t a lot of places like this anymore,” Ms. Ruggiero said.

Coffee An’ Donut, 343 Main Street, Westport, (203) 227-3808.

10 a.m.: The Right Cut

The modern butcher typically works behind glass partitions or heavy metal doors chopping and grinding meats, putting them on display, then receding into oblivion. But at Bliss Market in Wethersfield, the regulars know Nick DeFrino, who stood behind the meat counter on a recent Saturday in much the same way he has for the last 40 years, handing out almost as much kidding abuse as he does meats and fish.

What does Mr. DeFrino like most about being a butcher? “I don’t like any of it,” he said, grinning.

Wayne Martin, an everyday customer who was standing at the counter, laughed at that answer. “After getting to know these people for 25 years, they’re friends and neighbors,” Mr. Martin said. “Unfortunately we have to deal with people like this. But where else can you come in and get this kind of abuse?”

Mr. DeFrino’s son, John DeFrino, now runs the store. A gap-toothed gourmand, the younger Mr. DeFrino has come up with creations that now rival his father’s in popularity. Besides its reputation for high-quality meats and trimming to order, Bliss sells prepared foods. It has soups, breads, meatballs, enchiladas, champagne-grilled salmon, coconut-crusted tilapia with mango Mandarin sauce, twice-baked potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.

“I used to walk up here with my grandmother,” said Lisa Howe of West Chester, Pa., who grew up in Wethersfield and whose parents still live there. “And now my kids walk up here with my dad.”

Bliss Market, 675 Wolcott Hill Road, Wethersfield, (860) 529-4419.

11 a.m.: Nuts, Bolts, Neighbors

“Do you have anything for a Delta faucet?” a customer asks a small army of red-shirted employees at Katz Ace Hardware in Glastonbury on a crowded Saturday morning. “Aisle 16,” says one of the red shirts, as she comes around the counter to trail him. Few customers who walk into Katz’s walk through alone.

“I paint my deck every year, and every year I come in here and the guy knows what I want,” said Raul Pereda of Glastonbury, as he looked through light bulbs. Chris Livesey, another employee, hustled up to him and presented Mr. Pereda with the bulb he was looking for.

“It almost feels like I’m walking into my garage or basement,” Mr. Pereda said. “I can find what I want without having to walk a mile through a home improvement store.”

In another aisle, several men, including three employees, were on their knees going through hundreds of small drawers with hex nuts, hex keys, screws, washers and other pieces of metal that keep the world standing straight. Michael Lombardi of Marlborough held his 18-month-old son, C.J., in one arm while he went through the drawers looking for parts for his snowblower. Mr. Lombardi, a partner in an architectural engineering firm, designs many big-box home improvement stores.

“Those stores don’t have the people to help you out,” he said. “The service is great here.”

Katz Hardware is a decades-old presence in Glastonbury, a place where a customer can walk in with an outdated screw and pay a few cents to have it duplicated, discuss the merits of particular grass seeds, and rent a leaf blower, with detailed instructions and tips free.

“It’s a people place,” said Warner Brush, who has worked at the store full time for the past six years. “Lots of young kids, including my son, got their start here, and once they leave this place it’s an experience they never forget. It’s the best job in town for the kids.”

Katz Ace Hardware, 2687 Main Street, Glastonbury, (860) 633-3551.

Noon: A Little Quiet

Those who want conversation with their coffee will need to leave the Palm Pilot behind, close the laptop and turn off the cellphone. Only then will Lulu let them in.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon in November, coffee drinkers were stopping by Lulu, a European Coffeehouse, to read a newspaper, sit at the two window seats that make up the majority of the seating, and talk to the owner, Louise de Carrone, better known as Lulu. She opened the cafe in 1991, a single mother who had received a pink slip from a receptionist job the same day she spotted the “For Rent” sign on Cottage Street in New Haven and signed a lease for a different kind of work.

She opens in the morning for pastries, McCann’s Irish oatmeal, coffee and tea, and into the afternoon serves lunch, including cheese melts, tuna salads, and bagels with salmon. This particular Saturday, she was sitting next to Barry Berman of New Haven, a regular who is the founder and president of the Connecticut Radio Network.

“I come here because this is the real essence of what I think a neighborhood coffee place should be,” Mr. Berman said. “A Pulitzer Prize winner will be debating a Nobel Prize winner on any given day here. People from the arts and culture come all the time.”

As if on cue, David Sensabaugh, the curator of Asian art at the Yale University Art Gallery, strolled in and ordered a latte. “I like the people here,” said Mr. Sensabaugh, who visits Lulu every weekend. “It’s a nice neighborhood place.”

But with Yale in the background, this isn’t any old neighborhood.

“I think I’ve created a salon with a coffee shop wrapped around it,” Ms. de Carrone said.

Lulu, a European Coffeehouse, 49 Cottage Street, New Haven, (203) 785-9218.

2 p.m.: Barns Full of Books

A bookstore in a rural area depends on customers wanting to find it, but at Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, they’ve been coming since it opened in 1948, and they still do. On a recent Saturday afternoon, down a country road through fields where horses graze, several cars sit in the parking lot near Whitlock Farm’s old red barns. The two barns are leaning this way and that, as old barns do. But inside, the spines of the old books — many of them rare — are straight and intact, even after hundreds, perhaps thousands of thumbs have turned the pages.

“There are just so many old books,” said Jane Villeneuve of Washington, D.C., who grew up in Woodbridge and brings her children to the bookstore. “If you go to Barnes & Noble you get new books. Here, you don’t know what you’re going to find. It takes you back in time.”

The bookstore was threatened with closing when the last of the Whitlock owners, Gilbert Whitlock, died in 2004. Norman Pattis, a lawyer who lives a mile away, bought it that year and has been struggling to keep it open since. “I need to break even soon,” he said. “The future is an open question.”

Next to the bulletin board where dozens of business cards are tacked, Bacie Gitlin, a Yale freshman, worked behind a weathered wooden counter. From a speaker, the sounds of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” filled the room. Mr. Gitlin has been visiting the shop with his father, Jay Gitlin, a history lecturer at Yale, since he was a toddler.

“You can find anything here, from a 25-cent paperback to a $5,000 rare book,” Mr. Gitlin said.

Whitlock Farm Booksellers, 20 Sperry Road, Bethany, (203) 393-1240.

4 p.m.: DVDs, and They’re Free

Tired of paying late fees for movie rentals, Greg O’Neill of Stamford drove his hopes for a decent Saturday-night movie to the Ferguson Library, a stately Grecian-columned brick building in the middle of Stamford. With the second largest public library collection of DVDs and videos in the state — Hartford has the largest, according to a 2004 count by the Connecticut Library Association, but much of it is missing — it’s likely to have the movie you want.

“We discovered libraries had DVD collections,” Mr. O’Neill said as he stood next to several shelves of DVDs, where half a dozen people were stretching and bending to read the titles. “I have just one suggestion: that they promote some of the titles of what they understand to be the better movies.”

The Ferguson Library also has a large foreign-language film collection, and exercise, advice and motivational films.

Kenneth McCoy of Stamford was searching the movies that Saturday at the Ferguson, which is the main branch of the Stamford libraries. He typically drops by the South End branch of the library to find a movie each Saturday, but this week he happened to be downtown. “It has a large variety to choose from here,” he said. “But I know people call to put films on hold, so anything new that comes out, I have to wait.”

He wouldn’t have had to sidestep any bodies over at the VHS collection on the other side of the room. Nobody was shopping for a movie there.

Ferguson Library, 1 Public Library Plaza at the corner of Broad and Bedford Streets, Stamford, (203) 964-1000.

7 p.m.: Teenage Wasteland? Hardly

The music is ear-splitting, the bassist flies through the air as much as he’s on his feet, and teenage girls are crowded in front of the band.

Arcadia Coffee Company, by day a mild-mannered coffee shop in Old Greenwich that is full of suburban moms and dads, is transformed every couple of weeks into an evening music arena where mostly local teenage bands play for other teenagers.

“They are off the streets, it’s a clean venue, there’s no drinking, no drugs, and it’s an opportunity for local talent to be showcased,” said Stacey Tollin of Greenwich as she stood outside the shop, where two of her sons had performed that night in two different bands. Now a third group, the Knockout Kings, was on, the band with the flying bassist, and she wasn’t venturing inside, even though Jenny Lawton, the owner, was at the door offering orange earplugs to the adults.

A sign on the front door makes Mrs. Lawton’s rules clear: “No drugs. No alcohol. Bags will be searched. No outside bottles. Be safe.”

“It’s awesome,” said Lauren Lemarchand, 15, a sophomore at Greenwich High School, as she stood outside. “It’s a place to go.”

Arcadia has begun to draw teenagers from throughout the area. Katie Lyvers, a senior at West Hill High School in Stamford, sat on a stool at the rear of the shop, swaying to the music. “Stamford is kind of boring sometimes,” she said. “So I come here not to be.”

Mrs. Lawton, the mother of two boys, started to invite the bands about a year ago. She said she wanted to create a place where teenagers could be occupied and safe. “These kids are part of the community, and this is about community,” she said.

Arcadia Coffee Company, 20 Arcadia Road, Old Greenwich, (203) 637-8766.

8 p.m.: Wear Comfortable Shoes

Maybe it’s the swirl of gathered skirts, their willowy folds flowing out like fans, collapsing back in, then flowing out again. Or the stomping of the heels, clothed in soft-soled boots, ballet slippers and sneakers, or, occasionally, left bare. Or the wide grins on the dozens of faces as they spin past. They are contra dancing, which is a form of square dancing, and are stepping out on a Saturday night in the second-floor dance hall of the Branford Community House on Church Street. Dancers from toddlers to retirees fill the floor.

“You smile so much, your cheeks hurt,” said Morley van Yperen of Guilford, who brought her husband and four children to the dance for the first time.

Mrs. Van Yperen recalled contra dancing when she attended Gordon College in Massachusetts. “This is what I remember from college: a great mismatch of people,” she said. “And so fun.” She then stepped back into her group of dancers, elbow crooked to catch a fellow elbow, feet moving to keep up with the music, which is provided by a band of fiddle, guitar and flute.

Watching the crowd from a doorway was Ada Wilson, also of Guilford, who has been dancing for about 25 years.

“I love the people,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s a very friendly, welcoming community. And I love to dance.”

The twice-monthly dances are sponsored by the New Haven Country Dancers, a loosely knit group whose president, Paul McGuire of New Haven, is a computer programmer and analyst for Yale University’s Department of Economics. Mr. McGuire worked up a sweat that night, then stepped off the floor to catch his breath. “It’s enjoyable going out there and being graceful,” he said. “Tell people to come.”

New Haven Country Dancers dance at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 830 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, and at the Branford Community House, 46 Church Street, Branford, (203) 776-1812.


11 a.m.: Eggs and Hats

Fresh-squeezed orange juice is a treat at Sunday brunch, and Gail’s on the Common delivers a big glass filled with it. There’s no skimping here. The restaurant is in a new spot in a strip mall on Danbury Road in Ridgefield, where Patty Finnegan, the owner, took cover in August after the original and beloved Gail’s on Main Street burned to the ground. The new location is not easy to find, but that didn’t stop dozens of people from crowding into the little space to wait for a table on a recent Sunday.

Sunday is hat day at Gail’s. The waitresses and Ms. Finnegan wear Sunday hats, balancing them on their heads while serving dishes like pancakes or omelets — try the spinach with caramelized onion, diced tomato, salsa, sour cream, jalapeņos, mushrooms and scallions — which have long been a mainstay at Gail’s.

Carol Anderson was eating a plate of eggs and home fries as she sat at a little square table with her husband, Paul. “We like the friendliness,” she said. “And we see a lot of friends we know.”

Ali and Steve Mortinger of Ridgefield, who were regulars at Gail’s on Main Street, stood in the doorway waiting for a table with their sons, Sam, 10, and Matt, 7. “It was where everybody went,” Mrs. Mortinger said. “I can’t wait for it to be rebuilt.”

Ms. Finnegan said that is a possibility.

“I’m hoping,” she said. “It was a great spot. We have to see.”

Gail’s on the Common, 103 Danbury Road, Ridgefield, (203) 438-9775.

1 p.m.: Go Outside

Kat Muthig of Harwinton stood by the guide map at the White Memorial Foundation and Conservation Center one Sunday afternoon, picking out the places her family had discovered there in the 15 years they had lived in the area. “There are so many trails and it’s so beautiful and quiet,” she said.

There are plenty of pretty places to walk on a Sunday afternoon in Connecticut, but one of the loveliest is White Memorial in Litchfield. Maybe it’s the feel of the Berkshire Mountains nearby, or the 4,000 acres the foundation owns, or the 35 miles of walking trails that encompass ponds, fields, forests, campgrounds, a boardwalk and Bantam Lake. Take a picnic, walk the dog, talk to your family.

This particular Sunday, about 20 cars were parked in the main lot. Irene and Bob Brown stood by their car preparing for a hike. They said they felt safe at White Memorial during hunting season. “There’s no hunting here,” he said as he pulled on a hat to keep out the November chill.

At the education center across from the parking lot, Lauren Kennedy of Woodbury and her son, Kyle Kennedy, 12, were strolling about the deck. Kyle had spent the afternoon fishing for bass and trout at the foundation. Then the two walked the trails together. “I just like being outdoors, and the peacefulness of walking in the woods,” Ms. Kennedy said.

White Memorial Foundation, 80 Whitehall Road, Litchfield, (860) 567-0857.