Pepe Nero offers a taste of Sicily
You can forgive Giorgio Lo Greco for not falling in love with Traverse City at first sight. That’s because his first sight came while he was driving into town in the wee small hours during a blizzard.
“I was not impressed by Traverse City. I was here to help Dominic Fortuna open Mico’s, and I called him and said, ‘Come and rescue me or I’m going back to Los Angeles,’” said Lo Greco.
After a few months of working at Mico’s (which was eventually sold and became Firefly), he returned to the warmer climes of southern California. But he returned to the area in more temperate weather, and eventually decided it was time to move here and open his own restaurant.
The result is Pepe Nero, located in the lower level of Building 50 at the Grand Traverse Commons. Lo Greco, his wife Monica and a small staff run the restaurant where the menu boasts “Authentic Sicilian food delivered to your table by an authentic Sicilian.”
Lo Greco is that authentic Sicilian, and his food experience goes back some 46 years.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” he said during a postlunch break at the restaurant. “My uncle had a famous osteria (in Italy), serving wine and pasta. It’s been open since 1947 and is still going strong.”
He began working there at age eight, and also absorbed cooking lessons from his mother and grandmother. He followed that up with restaurant jobs across the world, including Los Angeles, before turning to Traverse City.
At Pepe Nero, the Lo Grecos turned back to Giorgio’s roots. The result is an adherence to simple, rustic Italian food, with an emphasis on freshness and not too many ingredients.
“We keep an eye toward the décor (of the plate), but the most important is the food has flavor,” said Lo Greco.
How does he know if he’s succeeded? “It’s great to see an empty plate,” he said with a smile.
Lo Greco says the diminutive size of the restaurant, with its small kitchen and fewer than 30 seats, makes things challenging, but also provides advantages. “There’s not a lot of food storage, so everything is fresh. I order what I need on a daily basis.
“It’s challenging. I change the recipes every day, all based on what I’ve found and what I have.” That means the minestrone may feature different beans and vegetables on Tuesday than on Wednesday.
But whatever the ingredients, Lo Greco says he will make it taste great, something that can’t be guaranteed even with the proliferation of cookbooks, recipes and demonstrations online and cooking shows. That’s because Lo Greco says one key thing is left out of every recipe.
“Do you know how it is supposed to taste?” He does, and he can be relied on to make sure the taste is up to par. “I can detect how to adjust my recipe. I grew up with it,” he said.
The taste treats at Pepe Nero run from salads and soup to sandwiches and entrees. Paninis are a lunchtime favorite, from the ortolano, with roasted eggplant and roasted zucchini with sundried tomatoes and pesto, to the sfilatino della casa, with provolone, mortadella, Genoa salami and olive tapenade.
In the evening, choices include two versions of veal scallopine, Sicilian fish stew, chicken with lemon and capers, even swordfish rolls with breadcrumbs, pine nuts and pecorino cheese.
Then there’s the pasta. There are several choices, from wild mushroom agnolotti (a Sicilian-style ravioli) to linguine with clams to a rigatoni with peas and meat sauce.
But when asked what is the best thing on the menu, Lo Greco points to one of the most basic dishes he serves. “The Linguine Alla Carrettiera with olive oil and garlic,” he said. “It’s the most simple pasta you can make in the world.”
With Trattoria Stella just down the hall, one might question whether Lo Greco thinks he can beat the competition. But he dismisses the concept altogether, hewing to the old adage “the more, the merrier.” He sees the nearby restaurants as bringing more potential customers in for everyone.
“We have more people, and we give them a choice. Stella’s, Spanglish, they can come in and have coffee (at Cuppa Joe), they can spend a full day here.”
And the Lo Grecos hope that part of that day is spent at Pepe Nero. Which, by the way, means black pepper in Italian. Monica came up with the logo, which mimics the shape and color of a peppercorn.
Next up is the creation of a wine bar in the restaurant, which they hope will be up and serving by the time you read this. It’s all fits in with creating the ambience of an eatery in southern Italy, where staples include fish, pasta, raisins, pine nuts and wine.
“Those are all part of my recipes,” said Lo Greco. “Sicily is only 700 miles from North Africa, and near Greece. So it’s all Mediterranean food.”
Pepe Nero is open from 11 to 4 for lunch and 5 till 9 for dinner Monday through Thursday, and till 10 on Friday and Saturday. Sunday it’s open from noon to 3. Check out their Facebook page at pepenero. Or call 929-1960.
DON’T MISS: Giorgio Lo Greco swears by the Linguine Alla Carrettiera, with garlic drizzled extra virgin olive oil, and Italian parsley. Don’t forget dessert, cannoli with super smooth and rich ricotta cheese and just a hint of citrus.