Can the Team Behind Savio Volpe Save the Iconic Nick’s Spaghetti House?
We go behind the scenes to see just how a new Italian joint comes together.
April 17, 2018
It’s 5:30 on a snowy Wednesday night in late February, and Paul Grunberg is looking out at the growing flakes and worrying. “This isn’t good for tonight,” he mutters as he pulls out his phone and checks how many covers—170—are scheduled at his restaurant, Savio Volpe, where he’s sitting with his business partners, chef Mark Perrier and designer Craig Stanghetta.
“Not good,” he says, looking out at the snow. “We should be at 220.” Grunberg’s just a few weeks removed from selling out of L’Abattoir, the popular Gastown spot he founded, and his newly grown-out beard, coupled with his dialled-in focus, recall a Serpico-era Al Pacino: equal parts energy and cool reserve.
If his partners have any of Grunberg’s concern about the snow, they’re not showing it. Perrier has the perspective of someone who’s already walked away from this industry once: several years ago, he was an up-and-coming chef with stints at Le Gavroche in London and West under David Hawksworth when the combination of kitchen politics and the grind of the industry got to him—so, with an eye to his young family, he packed it in. He spent the three years prior to Savio happily toiling as a butcher at Two Rivers Meats.
And Stanghetta, a designer who, with his company Ste. Marie Design, spent the previous decade before Savio turning other restaurateurs’ dreams into reality, still maintains an air of I-can’t-believe-I-get-to-do-this-as-my-job excitement when he sits in the corner booth of a place that he actually owns.
Nothing helps promote camaraderie in the restaurant business like success, and Savio’s enviable balance sheet only reinforced the feeling these three had that they were on to something special when they first saw a decrepit tire store at Fraser and Kingsway.1 Instead of seeing environmental issues, they imagined an Italian spot built around a wood-fired oven: the sort of place they’d envisioned when they’d get together every Saturday to talk about what would make the perfect restaurant.
But the team is not here to talk about Savio.
Savio’s success—the trio repaid their debt from the restaurant in an unheard-of 15 months—enabled the team to start casting about for other projects. They toyed with the idea of another version of Savio, an offshoot that would be different but would share some of the brand’s DNA. But their careful planning was interrupted by a phone call from a realtor acquaintance who specializes in the restaurant industry. A building at the north end of Commercial Drive had just been sold and the new owners, familiar with the Savio juggernaut, wanted them as the new anchor tenant. The kicker? The building—631 Commercial—housed Nick’s Spaghetti House, one of the few remaining icons of Vancouver’s early dining scene.
The team’s immediate question: what was happening to Nick Felicella, the 86-year-old proprietor who opened the eponymous spot in 1955? They had zero interest in seeing an icon shoved aside as part of Vancouver’s gentripalooza. But a series of conversations with the octogenarian put their minds at ease. Nick wasn’t being pushed out: he was, after 62 years of service and with no descendants willing to carry on the restaurant, ready to move on to retirement.
Stanghetta lives in the neighbourhood and had been taking his daughter to Nick’s for old-school spaghetti and meatballs for years. He couldn’t fathom that the location was available. “There were so few properties with real character in this town,” he recalls. “And this one falls right in our laps. I couldn’t believe it.” Perrier also lives near the Drive and was likewise smitten. “I honestly thought we had a chance to bring back some of the vibrancy to this section of Commercial.”
But on things operational these two cede to the experience of Grunberg, who says he thought about the opportunity for all of two seconds. “My test is simple: would I feel sick if we didn’t get this?” he says. “I thought about it, and I realized I’d feel sick if we didn’t get this.”
Stanghetta nods in agreement. “In all seriousness,” he says, “one of the drivers for doing this is that if we didn’t do it and someone else comes and fucks it up, then this piece of history would be gone for good.”
So within 48 hours they had signed a letter of intent.
And handed over a $30,000 deposit.
Taking over Nick’s meant an immediate adjustment to the plans for a Savio offshoot. In the early stages, it’s Stanghetta’s job to figure out the story that will guide the team through the creative process. With Savio, it started with an image of a family of foxes and morphed from there. But Nick’s was no regional Italian spot but rather that unique hybrid that is the “red sauce” joint—a little dash of Naples, a pinch of Calabria and a huge heaping of North America as interpreted by the Italians—like Nick—who immigrated here starting at the turn of the last century. Stanghetta begins by gathering little pieces of inspiration that would help him envision the place: Ray Liotta sneaking in through the back door of the Copacabana in Goodfellas, a vintage ad for Hunt’s tomato paste, a matchbook from a long-ago Boston restaurant and, inexplicably, a shot of a blue vintage rotary phone. And the cover of a record by crooner Lou Monte called Pepino, the Italian Mouse.2 He also went so far as to hire historian John Atkin to create a dossier not just on Nick’s but on the entire Italian-Canadian experience in Vancouver from 1900 onward so he could both honour and tap into that authenticity as they moved forward.
But unlike Savio, which was a blank canvas, Nick’s came prepackaged with a storied past. Like the hand-painted murals of random scenes of “Italy” that adorn the dining room’s wall. On one of the early walk-throughs, someone asked Stanghetta what would become of them: “Are you kidding? We’re keeping ’em,” he answered.
When deciding whether to move on Nick’s, one of the issues the gang worried about was Nick’s compact footprint and its mere 77 seats. But they had an angle—next door to Nick’s is an operating convenience store, so the guys began to envision a companion spot to the restaurant that would be perfect as a wine bar. They negotiated with the landlord to take that space as well.
Experience had taught the team that one of the keys to success is minimizing delays on the front end. The city is rife with stories of restaurateurs whose undoing was delays occasioned by development or liquor permits.3 “That’s why we made sure that we bought both the liquor and the business licence from Nick,” notes Grunberg.
But the ink was just drying on the lease when word came back from the city: the convenience store space, that recently had housed an active, legally operating business, was not in fact zoned commercial.
It was residential.
The long-time operating corner store was, it turns out, only zoned for living in. Even crazier, the city’s master plan for this section of Commercial explicitly calls for more commercial frontage—which should have been a benefit, but because planning and licensing are different departments…it was a major problem.
Grunberg recalls discussing whether they should just walk away and cut their losses, but the idea was very quickly discarded. “We weren’t walking away,” says Stanghetta.
Instead they mobilized to get a building permit application in stat that called for a different use of the space, and in so doing they got a bit of a break: the city would agree to grandfathering the existing use—a convenience store—for the spot. So the idea of a wine bar would have to be shelved, but they could move forward with an Italian groceria concept: a store filled with the best stuff, perhaps branded by them, that might one day—with the city’s blessing—morph into a special- event space. Ideal? Not really. But damn the torpedoes.
The unfinished Nick’s space still has a yellowed lunch menu taped on the wood laminate wall, a testament to just what a kooky hybrid the spot had become by the end. There’s a list of “Daily Specials,” but they’re the same every day: baked lasagne with ground beef, ricotta and mozzarella cheese for $18.50, et cetera.
It’s this sort of dish that Perrier wants to honour—to a degree. This won’t be a place of note-perfect Ligurian regional dishes but rather a place that digs deep into the red-sauce mystique. And while the menu is Perrier’s domain, his partners have plenty of opinions.
“Oh, we’re 100 percent keeping the cheesecake,” says Grunberg in reference to Nick’s staple dessert. And Perrier is on board with keeping up Nick’s tradition of Sunday night prime rib. “We’ll definitely lose money on that, but I don’t care. It’s staying.”
But for the rest, it’s Perrier’s job to craft a menu that channels red-sauce themes without becoming kitsch. So every week, the team gets together midday at Savio and Perrier tests out potential menu items. “When we were doing Savio, I had to do all this in my home kitchen,” he recalls.
At this stage no one appears to be concerned with the ultimate cost of things. Stanghetta notes that one of the hallmarks of late-incarnation Nick’s was that prices had crept up quite a bit—like that $18.50 for a lunchtime lasagne—so they have a lot of room to create cool things without raising prices.
“I don’t cost things,” says Perrier. “I just focus on great ingredients.” And Grunberg gruffs: “If we wanted to just focus on making money, we’d be opening a pizzeria.”
The first dish out is some Italian bread, still warm from Savio’s oven. Perrier announces that the goal is to create a denser, spongy texture to soak up red sauce, and everyone seems pleased with the result. The only question is whether they’ll make it in-house (more expensive) or outsource to be made to their specs (cheaper). And there’s no talk of adopting the new tradition of charging for bread: “We’re definitely going to give it away,” says Perrier.
Next up is perhaps the most important dish for a spot opening in the old Nick’s: spaghetti and meatballs. Perrier hurries out with a platter of noodles crowned with three baseball-sized orbs of ground beef, pork and ricotta. The ricotta is Perrier’s fix to an earlier attempt that was deemed too dense by the brain trust, and the fix gets a big thumbs-up from the assembled. On closer inspection, the noodles are thicker than normal. “It’s actually spaghettoni—a little bigger,” says Perrier. “The funny thing is that spaghetti isn’t actually meant to be served with meat sauce. These noodles have a little more heft to go with the meatballs.”
Another round of thumbs up. The afternoon plays out with dish after dish—a side of rapini and raisins, a classic chopped salad, a vegetarian portobello parmigiana—with comments bandied back and forth.
It ends with a huge slab of the aforementioned New York–style cheesecake, made with cream cheese and ricotta and with a crust of graham crackers mixed with crushed biscotti. This version has strawberries, but Perrier plans on following the seasons with the toppings. This is his second attempt, and everyone is loving it. The only comment comes from Grunberg: “I’d like it to be taller,” he says about the already-towering slab of richness. Perrier looks down at the plate. “At a certain point, physics is involved, Paul.”
And while there is some constructive critique, for the most part the mood is excited, summed up by Grunberg clapping his hands together at the end of the tasting and declaring, “I can’t wait to start serving this food.”
It’s early March and Phoebe Glasfurd is ready to move forward. She’s dying to move forward. The designer is one half of the Glasfurd and Walker branding powerhouse, which many describe as the yin to Stanghetta’s Ste. Marie yang because they work so closely together.4
Back in late 2017, there was a vague thought that the restaurant would have been entering into some sort of soft opening by now, but that’s so far from reality as to be laughable. Far, as in they don’t even have a name yet.
“I really can’t start without a name,” she sighs. Once she has the name, she’ll start crafting her brief, which, like Stanghetta’s design plan, will lean heavily on the concept of storytelling to drive the visuals. “I imagine vignettes of what might happen in this space,” she muses, and from this she’ll work it up into a presentation that will encompass everything from signage to menus to stationery. “But I need a name.”
Across town the fellas, for their part, are really sweating the name. They’ve narrowed it down to two but as yet haven’t reached consensus.
Up first is Pepino’s Spaghetti House, loosely inspired by the novelty song of the same name. It’s catchy, playful and mirrors the throwback nostalgia of the restaurant’s concept. The other is the rather unconventional Spaghetti Mouse, a reference to Nick Felicella’s second-most-prized possession after his restaurant: a thoroughbred he picked up in 2003 for $21,000 that went on to win $929,850, the most ever by any B.C.-bred horse. It honours Nick and references when the spot was a big hangout for horseracing fans.
It’s clear that Stanghetta thinks that Pepino’s will be easier to work with and requires less explanation. Perrier and Grunberg seem to be leaning toward Spaghetti Mouse, but they won’t do it without Nick’s blessing.
And no one can get a hold of Nick.
Back at Savio, same corner booth. The opening is now looking like summer, but if there are any nerves around the table, no one’s expressing them. They just seem excited to have this place open. They’re talking about possibly creating a custom line of Italian dry goods for use in the shop; they’ve got some positive news from the city about the potential for special-use permits in the store space. Things are on the rails…for Pepino’s.5
“Honestly,” says Grunberg, “life is too fucking short.” He surveys the room. “I lost my old man not that long ago, and I want to build a place where I would have wanted to go have a meal or just hang out with him.”
Great wine, fair prices, spaghetti and ribs. It’s not even open, and the place feels like it’s always been here.
1 Funnily enough, Stanghetta and Grunberg first saw the building separately: Grunberg on his own and Stanghetta with Bao Bei’s Tannis Ling, who ultimately decided to pass on the space.
2 Monte, born Luigi Scaglione, had success with a series of Italian-American–themed novelty songs in the 1950s and early ’60s. In addition to “Pepino,” he recorded the Christmas carol “Dominick the Donkey,” which has, oddly, become a Vancouver Christmas tradition started by former news anchor Steve Darling on Global BC.
3 There are legends of spots that got derailed by such delays. Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe never really overcame an initial eight-month delay relating to an exhaust upgrade. It closed in 2011.
4 Their first project together was 2010’s Bao Bei, where, as luck would have it, they both became fast friends with the opening GM: Paul Grunberg.
5 The team ultimately decided that, given how important it was to Nick to retire his name, Spaghetti Mouse would have also been too close for him—and the 86-year-old is just hard to get a hold of. So it’s Pepino’s, which pays homage to the thoroughbred, tips the hat to the old spot, but is also distinctly their own. And it’s cool.