A backroom at Southgate Mall has become an unlikely gallery, but that’s not altogether unusual in a city that values and prizes all manner of artistic expression. Against glowing orange walls a collection of pottery fills shelves from floor to ceiling, and across a series of tables the pottery, with its spectacular tapestry of colors and styles, is carefully arranged and laid out, ready for dinner.

It’s tableware, but what elevates it to art—what distinguishes this tableware from, say, the stuff you’d register for at the Bon—is that each piece is made by hand and hand-painted, each piece bearing the distinction of an original and the personality of an artist, the dried glaze the only line between you and the artist’s brushstroke. Any piece here could be plucked from the table and displayed on its own, an object of beauty, of passion, of soul. It’s impossible to consider the art of the pottery without your mind also wandering into the experience of eating and the experience of dining, which is exactly what “gallery” owner Peter Lambros hopes you’ll do. “To give people art while they’re eating, it’s very satisfying,” he says.

Lambros and his wife Shelly Reisig own Caffé Dolce, the restaurant that spills out into the interior courtyard of Southgate Mall. The café boasts a tantalizing Italian menu of grilled sandwiches and good coffee, as well as gelati and baked desserts. The walls are washed in the colors of sunset and hilltop grasses, and the small terra cotta tables invite lunchtime tête-à-têtes.

It’s no accident that all the senses are indulged as the café lures you to its backroom, or that a restaurant is the entryway for the gallery. The handmade pottery is an example of art in one of its most influential contexts: everyday use. Tables are set as if for a spectacular banquet, the guests only just outside. Made in Deruta, one of Italy’s celebrated centers of ceramic craftsmanship, this maioliche pottery belongs in that ancient category of art wherein design and function act in concert to nourish the soul.

On honeymoon in Italy nine years ago, Lambros and Reisig came across the ceramics and knew at once that the heavy yet fragile dishes in bright, pretty hues complemented their own jubilant sense of life. They bought a few pieces to bring home. When they opened their café in 1997, the dishes and espresso cups appeared, adding elegance to the mall dining experience. In 1999, Lambros and Reisig opened Dolce’s showroom, then found themselves spending a month each year in Deruta, getting involved in design and production.

“You see something simple but it’s laid down elegantly,” says Lambros. “If Shelly and I have a talent it’s being able to recognize when that quality is there. I have no talent for visualizing the whole plate.” This year, Reisig and Lambros introduce the fifth in a series of original patterns, designs they have developed in close association with the few select families of Deruta that produce these pieces.

Lambros loves to set tables, and his dinners, whether family or formal, begin with a carefully laid setting that is intentionally beautiful, a visual hors d’oeuvre designed to inflame the appetite. He might use the austere and elegant Fontana pattern with its intricate border of curling dragons, vines and vessels, upon which food becomes art, too. Or maybe he’ll choose the pattern most recently added to the Dolce catalogue, the Venezia, which couples heavy, warm reds and greens with carnival frivolity for an effect that is stately and also traditional. Art plays a role in the experience of eating, as far as Lambros and Reisig are concerned, and preparing a meal is an opportunity to express creativity, talent and love. “The significance of the meal,” Reisig says, “is that it gathers everyone and gives you a chance to give, to serve, to present.” The dishware, then, becomes part of a larger artistic experience, and its exquisite delicacy, its gentle lines and its reassuring heft all serve the purpose of infusing the diner’s soul with beauty. For Reisig and Lambros, the pottery is a sublime blend of that which is useful with that which is pleasing—two of the necessary components for living a meaningful life.

Utility is part of this art, but then so is money. Dolce’s tableware does not come cheap. A single dinner plate might cost $65 or $100, a modest pasta bowl over $200. A traditional and familiar pattern, such as the relatively free-form Rooster, begins at $150 for a 5-piece setting (dinner plate, soup plate, salad plate, cup and saucer), while the Assisi pattern with its saturated blacks and ornate geometric repetitions costs $800 for a single setting, meaning a dinner party for eight at an undeniably sumptuous and sensuous table would cost you more than $6,000 before you’d even purchased the baby field greens and lobsters.

“People don’t have a clue as to why it costs so much,” Lambros says. “The handling of the product, the painting by hand—no part of it is automated.” And, he argues, the cost is merited: “When you pick this up,” he says, turning a soup plate over gently in his hands, “you know there is a connection with it, a feeling you cannot get from anything mass-produced. The process has integrity all the way through it.”

Contact the writer: arts@missoulanews.com

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