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TRIUMPH OF THE MILL

Facing the unappetizing prospect of unemployment when their company laid off a third of its workforce last year, two couples decided to ensure that they'd always have food on the table--by opening a restaurant.

But they didn't stop there. To guarantee that they'd always have plenty with which to drown their sorrows, they put a microbrewery in the restaurant. And to guarantee that they'd have plenty of sorrows, they put their restaurant in a dilapidated, century-old grain mill in Littleton, a historic landmark that had been the site of several unsuccessful eateries before it was nearly destroyed by a flood in 1990.

The foursome--Patricia and Pasquale Girolama and Zina and Leo Lech--played off the building's original name in dubbing their ambitious venture Columbine Mill Brewery and Pizza Company. "We really had to start from scratch," says Sean Halloran, the brewmaster who helped refinish the floors and walls and also served as interim general manager. "There was a lot of water damage from the flood, and we basically had to strip everything back to the timber and pour new concrete floors, rewire stuff--everything." They hired a local artist to paint hops vines on the exposed ductwork and create funky posters promoting the beers. Their efforts paid off: Columbine has the feel of a cafe tucked away in a spacious barn, a feeling enhanced by the old farm tools used as decor, the exposed post-and-beam structure and the expansive hardwood floors.

But although the restaurant came together physically, it was plagued by personnel problems when it opened last December. The kitchen quickly developed a bad case of revolving-door syndrome, which meant cooking styles changed every few meals, and the front of the house saw several general managers come and go. The early crowds went, too, put off by Columbine's inconsistency. Finally, in April the owners reeled in former Rock Bottom chef Kimball Wiggins to handle the kitchen; Tom Morris, now brewmaster for Red Hook, signed on as a consultant to help meet the constant demand for Columbine beer. And the owners, finding that they could keep their day jobs after all, learned to relax a little, resulting in a lighter atmosphere that's reflected in the easy attitudes of the staff.

Now all Columbine needs to do is work on its Italian entrees. Although they're based on authentic recipes straight from Zina's and Pasquale's childhoods (both were born in Italy), the non-pizza dishes we tried suffered from poor execution and haphazard seasoning, usually an indication that no one tasted the stuff before the kitchen sent it out. The exception: a swoon-inducing white-bean-and-prosciutto soup ($2.95 for a bowl), a thick concoction made rich by smoothed-out white beans and strong by slips of salt-cured ham. More of the meat appeared in the penne carbonara ($7.95), which had a good balance of pasta to sauce (some restaurants go overboard with penne, providing enough of the noodle to feed a whale carbo-loading for the Olympics) as well as plenty of prosciutto and pancetta. But we found garlic, which is not a primary ingredient in a traditional carbonara, lurking in the strangest places. First we'd wade through big patches of bland cream, then our tastebuds would turn a corner and--wham!--a pile of garlic would rob us of our ability to swallow. We were so busy trying to balance bites of the bulb that we never could figure out if the sauce contained the requisite parmesan.

We did agree that the spaghetti with meatballs and sausage ($7.95) transported us back to our college years, when we ate SpaghettiOs on "pasta night." The consistency of Columbine's mushy noodles was identical, although thankfully they weren't topped by that old orange, runny sauce. Instead, this sauce was chunky with tomatoes and replete with fresh parsley; sadly, there wasn't enough of it to smother the pasta. The meatballs were fine--nicely spiced and not overly bready--but the sausage was peculiar and tasted like the kitchen had just reshaped a meatball and stuffed it into the casing.

Our college cafeteria would never have served up anything as good as Columbine's tiramisu ($3.95), however. This was an exemplary example of the conventional recipe: ladyfingers smashed together, soaked in espresso, sandwiched between layers of mascarpone cheese and dusted with cocoa powder. No sugar sweetness, no cheap cheese substitute, no pound cake, just the basic ingredients that melded into one solid finish.

On a return visit, we started with that ubiquitous Nineties appetizer of artichoke dip ($4.95), although this version seemed like nothing more than ground-up artichoke hearts mixed with Hellmann's. The pepperoni bread provided for dipping, however, was packed with flavor, including a wonderful wallop of rosemary. Columbine makes its own breads, most of them with beer, and the kitchen uses a beer base for its pizza crusts and breadsticks, too. The breadsticks are addictive; an order with red sauce ($2.95) delivered the baked goods puffy and still steaming, accompanied by a pureed version of that good spaghetti sauce.

Good got better with the main event: pizza and beer. The State Street deep-dish pizza ($13.25 for a small) arrived filled with sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, fresh basil, oregano, Roma tomatoes, green peppers and onions. But the key ingredient was the superb crust: thick and chewy but not heavy, with a yeasty, molasses scent that could only come from beer. We washed the pie down with the Jackass stout (all of Columbine's house beers are $3 a pint), an oatmeal-style brew with a caramel sweetness and more intense flavor than we found in the Devil's Head, a thinly hoppy red with a light body.

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