The GM of Pepino’s Spaghetti House Dishes on Hospitality, Broken Bones and More

We often hear the same names of Vancouver hospitality titans in local media. They do very well to represent and have done so for years. We work up thirsts and appetites following their exploits and look forward to trying whatever it is they come up with next, but we seldom consider the individuals who toil in relative anonymity alongside them, and we’re often late in introducing those destined to join them in their starry pantheon. This series of short interviews looks to introduce our readers to this new breed, one blossoming talent at a time.

Delivering excellent hospitality isn’t easy. Doing it consistently, even less so. But whether it’s been at L’Abattoir, Savio Volpe or his current home, Pepino’s Spaghetti House, Romano Castillo has few equals in this department. It’s why seeing him as you walk into the restaurant is so reassuring. The proud, affable Fillipino recently sat down with Scout to discuss how nervous he was when he met his boss; what he and his daughter love to do together; and why he had to take two months off of work due to a broken hand. Say hello to Romano…

Where are you from?

Born and raised in Vancouver.

Why did you become a Manager?

I’ve always been one to see the bigger picture so I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role as soon as I started working in restaurants. From the way that I would see the room as a whole and how I would naturally find myself guiding and mentoring those I worked with, it just made sense. That’s why after a couple of years toiling in support roles and about six months of serving, I stepped up into a management role.

Did you ever have ambitions to do anything else?

I’m a people person and like helping others with their problems. I used to say I wanted to be a psychologist or something along those lines.

I fell in love with the pace and the environment of restaurants, and when I started managing I saw that I was able to nurture that side of me that wanted to help and develop individuals.

I really take pride in being an empathetic leader that my staff can count on. I took culinary arts at VCC for half a year as I did aspire to be a chef out of high school, although that didn’t work out so well. Also, I have a big place in my heart for music. If I were to be doing anything else it would definitely be singing.

Where did you learn? Do you have any formal training?

“The school of PG”. Seriously, I’ve only worked for one person my whole career, Paul Grunberg. I had no formal training, and whenever I would mention the idea of going to school for hospitality – he would say it was a waste of time since I was enrolled at “The school of PG”. Come to think of it, it was probably to keep me from taking time away from work…

What was your first restaurant/bar job and how long did it last?

My first job was as a Server’s Assistant at Market by Jean George at the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver. I landed it by fluke, and I was definitely way in over my head.

Paul was the GM and he hired me on a whim, more on that later. On my first day (opening night), I was stationed to polish glassware, which I had never done before. The first glass I picked up slipped right through the polishing cloth and shattered on the floor. Denis, the service director from New York was standing close by and he looked at me, told me to be more careful in his assertive French accent and walked away. He had no idea who I was and I was terrified. Surprisingly, I lasted a whole year and here I am now, the best glass polisher in the game.

Ok, now name every restaurant/bar you’ve ever worked in.

Market by Jean George, L’Abattoir, Savio Volpe, Pepino’s. I was part of the opening for all but Savio Volpe and like I said, I’ve only worked for one person (and his respective business partnersm, of course).

Romano digs into a pre-service staff meal at L’Abattoir in 2015.

If you could work for a week in one Vancouver restaurant/bar, which one would it be?

Kissa Tanto. It’s my favourite room in the city and I just love being in there. The food and drinks are delicious and the service style is on point. I have a ton of respect for Chef Joel, Tannis and the team at KT.

If you could work for a week in any restaurant/bar outside Vancouver, which one would it be?

Man, that’s a tough question. If I had to pick one place, it would be Carbone in NYC. The inspiration behind Pepino’s are the old school Italian-American red sauce joints that started in New York, and Carbone is the epitome of them. From the burgundy suits and bow ties that the server’s wear, to the bone-off Veal Parmigiana, it just seems like the right place where I could really learn the ropes in running a spaghetti house. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few celebrities as well!

What is the single most important lesson you have learned from Paul Grunberg?

Gracious hospitality. The most important thing I’ve learned about restaurants is that taking care of the customer is first. You can have the best food in the world, the nicest chairs and tables, great ambiance, but none of that matters if the service and guest experience do not exceed expectations. I’ve learned that if a guest dislikes something or is not happy, you do everything in your power to change the outcome of their experience. That’s what brings people back, being taken care of.

Who have been some of your most impactful mentors?

Paul Grunberg for obvious reasons. My mother who taught me humility and shaped the morals and values I hold to this day. My daughter who I had at a young age – she’s not exactly a mentor, but if it weren’t for her I would not have had the drive and ambition to be where I am in my career.

Let’s say you had an unlimited budget to open the restaurant of your dreams. Really, the sky’s the limit. What would the concept be?

Filipino. I take pride in my heritage and my desire would be to open an approachable Filipino style brasserie. Filipino cuisine is so underrated. Kare-kare; oxtail, tripe and vegetables in a savoury peanut sauce, accompanied with fermented shrimp paste. It sounds wild but its my favourite dish. Now if I could find a way to make that appealing to the average consumer, I’ve got my restaurant.

Do you have any ambition to open a restaurant/bar of your own one day?

Yes, absolutely. My drive to get where I am currently stemmed from the desire to open a restaurant. I always told myself I have to make it to the top, and I’m definitely not there yet. Why stop now?

Are you big into cocktails?

Not really. But I do drink Negronis. Occasionally, I will order a Corpse Reviver #2.

What is your favourite type of wine, beer and spirit to drink?

Wine: Italian
Beer: Lager
Spirit: Whiskey

What are your thoughts on the state of BC’s restaurant/bar industry?

I’d really like to see more late night establishments, particularly for the hospitality industry. I know that’s a tough thing to do in Vancouver though.

Name some of your favourite Vancouver restaurants?

Alongside the ones that I’ve worked at; Dachi, Kissa Tanto, Ask For Luigi, St. Lawrence, Como Tapeiria, Phnom Penh and Chinatown BBQ.

Romano outside Pepino’s during a break in training, one day before opening in 2018.

Where do you see yourself, career-wise, in five years?

In five years I definitely would like to see myself in an ownership/partnership position, whether it be with the company I work with now or something that I’ve created for myself.

Name your all-time favourite three spirits.

Bourbon, Rye & Scotch. Yes, I realize they’re all whiskies.

Describe the different challenges you sometimes face in running Pepinos?

The beauty of working at Pepino’s is in the old charm the space has, which we inherited from Nick’s. It’s like being on a set of a restaurant scene from The Sopranos. That being said, the building is about 100 years old and the space itself is the biggest challenge. From a leaky ceiling, to power outages and a kitchen that’s divided by the dining room, we’ve definitely been through more challenges within a year than most restaurants see their whole lifespan.

What’s your favourite Paul Grunberg story?

Before restaurants, I worked at the Sheraton Wall Centre as a houseman/banquet server. When the Shangri-La Hotel was opening back in 2009, a family friend who I worked with at the Sheraton decided he was going to apply. He encouraged me to do so as well, but I refused. Initially there were two reasons for this. One, I didn’t feel like I was qualified enough to work at such a prestigious hotel, and two, I was very comfortable where I was.

After an interview process which involved sitting with at least 10 different people, he was hired at the Shangri-La. I was very excited for him, and happy that I did not have to go through a gauntlet of interviews. Two days before opening, he gave me a call and said that I had to come down to the hotel and meet the manager, as they were desperate for extra staff. I really didn’t want to, but I gathered the courage to put on whatever appropriate clothes I had and made my way down.

As I was sitting nervously in the staff cafeteria, palms sweaty, with my heart in my throat, in walks in Paul Grunberg. Slicked back hair, beardless, wearing a black suit and tie. He comes right up to me and all he says is, “you have two feet and a heartbeat?” The word “Yes” barely came out of my mouth before he told me to come back the next day. The rest, as they say, is history.

Got one for Chef Mark Perrier?

Chef Mark is a cool guy. I don’t really have any stories of him but I do have much respect for him. He and the other partners Craig and Paul all have children, and I admire their ability to be amazing fathers while running successful businesses. The coolest thing about Mark is that he hunts, and when he does he’ll disappear to a remote location for a week or so with no cell service, and we worry he won’t return. He always does though, with the craziest stories to tell.

If you could recommend just one hospitality book for any aspiring Restaurant Manager, what would it be?

Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich. It’s an entertaining memoir about his restaurant journey in NYC. If Danny Meyer used as many F-bombs, I would’ve picked Setting the Table.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being a Manager these days?

Seeing the people that you put the time and effort to train and develop go on and do something great. Early on in my career I had the pleasure of managing a couple people who later became GM’s themselves. Liam Todd at Coquille, and Nico Papanikolau at Como Taperia. I cannot take full credit for their successes, but knowing I made an impact on their journey is fulfilling.

You’ve just clocked out and you’re thirsty. Where are you going and what are you drinking?

Dachi for a negroni and a shot of Maker’s Mark. I’ve always had an after service spot to drink for at every place I worked. At Market it was The Keg on Thurlow. L’Abattoir I had The Diamond and at Savio Volpe, it was Crowbar. When Miki and Stephen opened Dachi I couldn’t have been more stoked. They are such a talented duo and a perfect fit for the neighbourhood. I’m all about supporting independent restaurateurs such as those two. Dachi is also conveniently on my way home.

Outside of running restaurants, what are some of your other passions?

Spending time with my daughter Mya is number one. When I’m not working, I do my best to be with her. She’s 12, and being a young parent we’re able to share similar interests and hobbies such as music and aquariums. We love singing together, and collectively we have 4 aquariums. She’s my best friend.

When I find more time, I definitely want to get back into rock climbing or boxing, which are sports that I have a huge interest in. Fun fact: I was part of the very first Aprons for Gloves: Restaurant Rumble back in 2012, and I broke my hand during my fight. I had to get surgery and I missed two months of work, which is the longest I’ve gone without working to this day.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

The amount of people I’ve met and networked with throughout the years is the best part. I’ve amassed a lot of friendships and forged strong relationships, both with clientele and colleagues alike. Some of the people I’ve worked with or served in the past are now good friends, and there’s nothing like going to their restaurants and being welcomed by them.


There are 3 comments

  1. What a guy! Great interview – really captures his gracious, kind nature. Well done.

  2. I have had the great pleasure of being welcomed by Romano into every establishment he has managed. Always so gracious and makes me feel like he is happy to have us there.

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