Italian-American inspired “red-sauce joint’ serves up heaping portions of spaghetti and nostalgia in the heart of Little Italy
When Nick Felicella, proprietor of famed “red sauce restaurant” Nick’s Spaghetti House, decided to retire after 62 years in business on Commercial Drive, the team behind Osteria Savio Volpe jumped at the chance to take over the former home of Nick’s. The recently opened Pepino’s Spaghetti House is an homage to both the cuisine that developed in the Italian immigrant communities during the early part of the 20th century, and to the locale’s celebrated influence in Vancouver’s Little Italy.
“Pepino’s is the house that spaghetti built. If you appreciate well-made, traditional Italian-American food, this is the place for you,” says Paul Grunberg, partner. “It’s really important for us to honour the integrity of Nick’s, and I think he’s happy with the result.”
And, Pepino’s IS still a classic spaghetti house. Chef / Partner Mark Perrier breathes new life into those “old war horse” dishes by using fresh, house made pasta; organic, hormone-free meats and Oceanwise seafood; and the best local suppliers; think heaping plates of spaghetti & meatballs, veal parm, Caesar salad, fettuccine shrimp scampi, chicken piccata and all that wonderful stuff that begs to be mopped up with baskets of white bread. “We’re going for satisfying, simple, and generous,” says Perrier. “Food that should remind guests of Sunday lunch with their grandparents.”
Following suit, the wine list is firmly rooted in Southern Italy where old-school classics rub elbows with newly emerging varieties; and the cocktail list is definitive — house-branded bottled Martinis, Manhattans and Negroni — along with non-alcoholic, house made seasonal fruit Italian-style sodas.
With nostalgia as the order of the day, the name Pepino’s is as much of a throwback as the concept itself: taken from the titular character of the popular Lou Monte song of the 1950s, ‘Pepino the Italian Mouse’ is a sly-as-a-fox nod to Nick’s beloved racehorse, Spaghetti Mouse. In fact, the space itself is a similarly playful ode to bygone days.
The 66-seat room is designed by Partner Craig Stanghetta’s studio, Ste Marie Design, and retains the spirit — the warmth and closeness — of this style of old school restaurant in mind, the team undertook the project as an exercise in archeology more than anything, meticulously salvaging and lightly upgrading the space.
“We want it to feel familiar yet ever-so-slightly adjusted for us and our endeavour of creating our version of a romantic, convivial and boisterous hole in the wall,” explains Stanghetta. “We like the idea that as most restaurants move toward bright, crisp spaces, we have a room that is perpetually dark, giving people permission to step outside of their reality and into a place where it’s difficult to reconcile the hour of day or even the year. It makes it easy to say ‘yes!’ to another glass of wine or two and to get lost in conversation.”
The team behind Pepino’s is enamoured with creating the type of place where regulars run into the same folks on return lunch and dinner visits – the type of place that is getting harder and harder to come by these days. “Similar to Savio Volpe, we intend for Pepino’s to become a neighbourhood favourite, a comfortable space where people can take a load off, breathe in the aromas of fresh cooking, and look forward to a leisurely meal with family and friends,” says Stanghetta.
Looking ahead, adjacent to Pepino’s is the soon-to-open Caffè La Tana, Italian for a fox’s den. This old world-inspired cafe/grocery concept will be stocked with grab-n-go fresh pasta; a beautiful and useful variety of Italian specialties for the pantry; traditional Italian pasticcerie, tramezzini; and, of course strong espresso to satisfy Savio the fox and Pepino the mouse’s off-duty cravings and home cooking needs.