Pepino’s is tucked away on Commercial Drive in a space that has been serving up spaghetti since 1955. The restaurant formerly known as Nick’s, named after owner Nick Felicella, was a neighbourhood favourite until it closed in 2017. The team behind Savio Volpe stepped in, and with a slight update to the space and a change of name, Pepino’s was born.
What’s In a Name
The team was looking for a name that would honour Nick’s legacy, while also tying the two sister restaurants together zoologically. In Italian, Savio Volpe means wise fox. It just so happens that Nick owned a race horse whose name was Spaghetti Mouse. There also just so happens to be a charming song by Lou Monte called Pepino the Italian Mouse. Thus, Pepino’s.
When I first visited Pepino’s I was nervous. Nick’s was a favourite of my family. My dad figures that he first visited in 1968 when he was a student at UBC, and on the Thunderbirds hockey team. After games, a teammate who grew up in the neighbourhood would call ahead and Nick’s would welcome them after closing for a spaghetti and meatball feast. Understandably, it came to be a much-loved spot. Growing up, we lived in Dunbar so going to a restaurant all the way on Commercial Drive felt special.
Pepino’s Honours the Integrity of Nick’s
When I stepped into Pepino’s for the first time, I was relieved. The space feels the same. It doesn’t look exactly the same. Ste. Marie updated the interior with minimal changes. They have designed other restaurants in town such as Botanist, Como Taperia, and Bao Bei. In comparison, their impact can be noted only in the details.
As you first step inside, there is a tile transition on the floor commemorating the sixty two year period that the space was Nick’s. The kitchen is directly to your right, as it was before. The tones of the wood are warm. The murals of the Italian coast remain. The walls are still mirrored. There is a comforting sense of nostalgia. Pepino’s feels like a family place. Still.
La Tana Del Lupo
I visited Pepino’s on a Tuesday evening, and the restaurant was bustling. It’s easy to understand why expanding into the space next door, now know as Caffe La Tana, was necessary. La Tana, by the way, means burrow or den in Italian. They serve dishes ranging from lunch to aperitivo and dinner. They also operate a grocery store, or, in Italian, an alimentari. La Tana carries house made meals as well as fresh dairy, produce, and pasta supplies. Strong espresso is also served.
Meanwhile, Pepino’s is serving up Italian immigrant standards and staples. The kitchen team is lead by Culinary Director Phil Scarfone and Head Chef Vish Mayekar, both Top Chef Canada alumni. Chef Vish is also behind the menu at La Tana, while Phil also directs at Savio.
A must try appetizer at Pepino’s is the sausage wrapped olives. I have to confess, I’m not the biggest olive fan, so when Chef Vish suggested I give this appetizer a try, I was a little hesitant, not that I told him that. But these will make olive fans of even the most olive averse. The crust on the outside of the sausage is satisfyingly crunchy. The slightly pink sausage inside is well seasoned. The grind is a little coarse and the meat mix is nicely fatty. And in the centre of each is a pitted Castelvetrano olive.
Other classic appetizers include the Caesar salad which comes with literal inches of parmesan on top. The dressing is creamy but also has enough bright citrus to balance. The garlic cheesy bread is, as promised, garlicy and cheesy.
A note on the pasta portions at Pepino’s: they are huge. Food here is served family style, intentionally designed for sharing. Go with friends, reach across the table, pass dishes around, and you’ll probably still be taking leftovers home.
The rigatoni alla vodka is glossy and gorgeous. The sauce is super creamy, and the dish comes with a cheeky dusting of red pepper flakes. The pappardelle comes with a rich, creamy bolognese sauce that simmers for six hours, melding the flavours of the pork, veal, beef, and chicken livers. The pappardelle pasta is made in house, as is the gnocchi which is served with Marsala sauce and wild mushrooms. Pepino’s also serves a variety of pizzas, featuring a weekly special.
The service is friendly, the vibe is comfortable, and Pepino’s is open daily at 5pm.