Award-winning restaurateurs Paul Grunberg, Mark Perrier and Craig Stanghetta are opening a new eatery in the old Nick’s Spaghetti House location at 631 Commercial Drive this summer. Dubbed Pepino’s Spaghetti House, the 66 seater will be a thematic departure from their celebrated Savio Volpe restaurant in the Fraserhood, striking a balance between its exacting protocols, authentic preparations, and high-end design sensibilities and the casual, approachable, old school Italian-American/Canadian style that made Nick’s such a memorable fixture for over 60 years. They’ve also taken over the old convenience store address next door, which is slated to become a slick, well-stocked caffe/alimentari called La Tana (“The Den”).
When we reported back in December that Nick’s Spaghetti House was closing, I really didn’t want to believe it. The old “red sauce joint” was a comforting part of my life, and I think something of a reassuring facet of the community. It was one of very few establishments I never viewed through the often stupidly complicating prism of my work as a food writer, my relationship with it having predated my entry to the workforce by decades.
Save for the prices, the menu hadn’t significantly changed since I was a kid, so I never strayed from the things I liked. My order was always exactly the same: Spaghetti with meatballs, garlic bread (shared), and a Pepsi. Only when I started bringing my own children there did I ever try the lasagna, the ravioli and the cutlets, and only because they could never finish their plates. I never ordered alcohol. Because at Nick’s I was forever 9 years old. And why would I mess with that?
Last Days of Nick’s
But things change. Restaurants come and go. Nick’s didn’t shutter because of condos, rising costs or other forces of gentrification. It closed because it had lived a full life and the family members of its octogenarian founder and namesake, Nick Felicella, showed no interested in taking it over. Nor did Felicella want to see Nick’s operated by someone outside the family. After completing an amazing 62 year run as the northern outpost of The Drive’s once thriving Little Italy, its time was up. And so be it.
Two weeks after Nick’s served its final guests just before Christmas (a scene reminiscent of a Frank Capra movie), the building’s new owner handed the keys over to the team that gave us Savio Volpe. Why? I’m guessing that after two and a half years of being nationally recognized for deliciousness, the beautifully designed, modern vision of a rustic Italian osteria near Fraser and Kingsway ran out of mountains to climb, save for the peaks of the pressures it nightly puts on itself. It’s time for something new.
Pepino’s Spaghetti House isn’t setting out to be the second coming of Nick’s, that much is clear. But it’s not a massive departure from it either. The Italian-American/Canadian food concept is staying the same, but the menu will be radically different with a more discerning approach the ingredients. Diners, co-owner Mark Perrier told me, can expect things like Chop and Caesar salads, Calamari Fritti, Zitti with Sausage, Spaghettoni with Meatballs, Pork Chop Parmigiano, Fettucine Alfredo with Mushrooms, Chicken Piccata, Veal Milanese, nightly Prime Rib, and so on — basically all the classics done very well with the pastas all made in house.
“We are going to breathe new life into these old ‘war horse’ dishes by using only the best ingredients,” they say, “cooking from scratch and working our way backwards; making some of the tastiest and most comforting food of all time while honouring the original dishes.”
Supporting this will be a 5/5 wine list of reds and whites by the glass poured from a 60 bottle list as well as a selection of classic cocktails and several beers.
The interior is not being gutted. From what I’ve gathered from my conversations with Stanghetta, who is also the principal of Ste. Marie Art + Design (and so responsible for the looks of Kissa Tanto, Bao Bei, Mosquito, Ask For Luigi, Di Beppe, and several other good looking rooms), the aesthetic of Pepino’s will cleave close to that of Nick’s.
He wants to keep the kitschy paintings of the Bay of Naples, the Grand Canal and the Colosseum, and the wood panelling, the wall sconces, and both the front and back kitchens are just getting a clean up.
They’re only “renovating” the old service bar (sadly, still seatless), touching nothing structural. They’re also adding a banquette to one wall, some high tops to the entrance area opposite the galley kitchen, some new service cabinetry, new chandeliers, and flooring the dining room with new carpet and the front room with patterned mosaic tile. Take a look at progress to date in the gallery below.
If Savio Volpe was named after a cunning fox, Pepino’s is named after a mouse, specifically Pepino, the Italian Mouse, the wily antagonist to Lou Monte in his old and rather silly Calabrese-ish novelty song of the same name. Click the video below for a look and listen…
Pepino, oh, you little mouse, oh, won’t you go away
Find yourself another house to run around and play
You scare my girl, you eat my cheese, you even drink my wine
I try so hard to catch you but you trick me all the time
If you can believe it, that song was a massive hit in 1962, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Take that, Alvin and the Chipmunks!)
As you can see from the video, the 2,000 sqft restaurant has already got its branding sorted, thanks to Glasfurd & Walker, who are collaborating with Stanghetta on the identity for the umpteenth time (they also did Savio Volpe). They were kind enough to send me these mood board renderings, which should give you an idea as to the direction they’re going…
Looking at these renderings and knowing the layout of Nick’s, it’s not difficult to imagine what it will look and feel like, and that has me excited to dine here. On my walk-through last week, it was a fascinating thing to “draw back the curtain” of the address, to see the old bones up close. I’d never stood in the kitchens or seen the prep area in the back, or used the connecting passage between Nick’s and what used to be the Commercial Convenience Store next door (the future La Tana).
In the few months since they took possession, Stanghetta et al have discovered all sorts of cool service shrapnel, from ancient menus and steak “doneness” pins to a prep-sized, counter-mounted parmesan grater and the old rotating chit holder above the kitchen pass. If there were such a thing as Restaurant Archaeology, this would be a scheduled, Class “A” site worth digging.
The restaurant should be open as early as this June, but we might have to wait a little longer for Caffe La Tana next door, which is a total build out instead of a slight renovation. But I suspect it will be worth it. If Pepino’s mimics the New World nonchalance of Sardi’s in New York, La Tana will echo the conservative, traditional Old World and all the deliciousness we associate with it.
From the design renderings I’ve seen, the 1,100 sqft space will be a stylish spot to buy some fresh pasta, cheese and salumi to take home or hang out with an espresso and a Veal Parm sandwich while reading the paper. Here’s some language on it from the owners, plus some photos I recently took of the barren interior…
Even though the lion’s share of our focus has been on getting the restaurant up and running we’re also going to be opening a Caffè & Alimentari in the space next door. We love the juxtaposition because as we dive into the North American Italian immigrant story on one side we’ll be trying to dig deeper into the old world next door. This place is meant to look and feel like the iconic caffès of Rome or Milan — steeped in marble and wood and tradition. Our intention is to sell fresh pasta and a variety of beautiful Italian specialties for cooking or hosting at home. We’ll also offer some nice coffee and pastry in house and explore some more substantial dishes as we move through the day. We’re just bringing in product and starting to test some dishes now.
Part of the impulse for doing the Caffè & Alimentari came from the fun we have at Savio interacting with guests at the bar as we plate dishes next to them, serving them as though they were right there in our kitchen at home. We think we can expand upon this cultural phenomenon in the caffè, while we also selfishly use it as a place for our own ongoing education and engagement in the old traditions and products of Italy.
CAFFE LA TANA (CONSTRUCTION)
We’ll have a lot more on these two establishments as opening day approaches, so watch this space. In the meantime, you can follow along via their Instagram (included in the map below).