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Highgate Gets a Bakery-Café with Art on the Side 

State of the Arts

click to enlarge Joe Russo and El Towle
  • Joe Russo and El Towle

For eight years, Joe Russo scoured 31 towns north of Rutland for the perfect place to open a combination art gallery and café. “I wanted somewhere that we could provide a needed service to the community,” he says. Last August, he found the place: Highgate, land of hockey, Holsteins and homeland security — because it also borders Canada.

Russo, 53, and his partner, Elroy Towle, 57, operate Joey’s Junction Bakery at the busy intersection of Routes 207 and 78, where Canadians, commuters and various day-trippers enter and exit Highgate. Joey’s is an exclusive gallery for Towle, an art teacher at Blue Mountain Union School. His paintings plaster the walls, barely leaving room for the washer, dryer and ATM.

“I do well here,” Towle says. He favors oil and acrylic paints, though he enjoys departures into the realm of watercolor, gouache and pastels. Towle also works in three-dimensional clay and plaster, but those works don’t appear at Joey’s. Instead, the place is filled with paintings of farm animals and various eclectic scenes — such as the eye-catching half-moon flicking its tongue à la rock god Gene Simmons.

“Being an art teacher has provided me with opportunities to discover and explore endless varieties of expression,” Towle says. “Art for me is food for the soul. I paint almost every day and find it therapeutic and inspirational.”

Russo’s soul food comes from the kitchen — “Here, we consider food an art form, also,” he says. “El has his. I have mine.”

To be sure, there’s plenty to choose from at Joey’s. Inside the 600-square-foot structure, customers can pick up breads, pies and cookies, or sit down for breakfast — all day — lunch or dinner. Russo makes every bit from scratch. A New Jersey native, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1980 and taught at the New England Culinary Institute from 2006 to 2008, just before opening his own place.

Russo describes his cooking as “simple, basic and down-to-earth.” During the summer, all the vegetables served in the café come from his own garden, just outside.

His baked goods take the cake, though. One customer favorite is a freshly made donut filled with either Bavarian cream or raspberry, or topped with pure maple butter. Russo says he spent years coming up with “the perfect pancake.” He concocts his own beverages, too — teas and fresh-squeezed lemonades sell quickly on hot days.

“Hospitality is an honorable calling, and having the opportunity to serve others is a humbling and rewarding experience,” Russo says.

Russo and Towle met four years ago. When the pair aren’t busy at Joey’s, they’re running their 70,000-tap maple-sugar farm in Belvedere. That would explain Russo’s sweet stuff — there’s a pint of Vermont maple syrup in each maple-pecan pie.

“The making of maple is an art, too,” Russo notes.

He says Highgate’s residents have been receptive to Joey’s Junction; it’s become a destination for out-of-towners and local regulars alike. In fact, business is so good — even in this wheezing economy — that Russo and Towle are considering the next phase of Joey’s: an outdoor fire-brick oven for pizza and artisan breads.

“We’re just taking things one step at a time, taking it easy and seeing what the customers want,” Russo says. “You have to have fun with what you’re doing, and we are.”

Want a taste?

Joey’s Junction Bakery & Café, 2865 VT Rte. 78, Highgate Center. Open Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. - 6 p.m., and Sunday 8 a.m - 4 p.m. Info, 279-8303 or joe@vermontmaplesyrup.com.

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