A Chat with Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville

Third Street treasure Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville opened in 1977 and has been a winemaker and foodie hangout ever since. Years of delectable handmade pastas and wood-fired pizzas finally earned the establishment a James Beard American Classic award in 2014. 

A genuine Willamette Valley institution, Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville is a flavorful family affair. The joint’s namesake, Nick Peirano, can often be seen shooting pool in the Back Room while his daughter, Carmen, runs the kitchen. Here, the man himself talks pasta, pairings and Third Street of yesteryear. 

How did you learn how to cook?

Just out of family interest. Nobody in my family was a professional cook but they were good cooks. My dad made homemade ravioli and pasta. I can remember watching him roll out pasta when I was five or six years old and we’d have homemade fettuccini and just wonderful meals.

What brought you to McMinnville? 

I was going to school at San Francisco State working on a masters in political science without any idea what in the world I was going to do with it. Some friends of myself and my then wife lived here in McMinnville and knew I had a pipe dream of starting a restaurant. 

What was the first dish you served?

The first thing we served as a pasta course was my family’s ravioli dish, a recipe I can trace back about 120 years. But I think it goes farther back than that. 

What was McMinnville like in 1976?

Well, it was and still is a small town. Third Street, which is full of boutiques and tasting rooms now, was trying to be a regular downtown business district. You know, Pennies, Western Auto, Ben Franklin Five-Dime, a large drug store – it was a regular downtown. But the big boxes were coming and they weren’t going to survive. It was an interesting time and the town made the transition very nicely. 

Did you think the Valley was going to be a food and wine destination at the time?

No. I can’t claim any sort of predictive ability in that regard. I thought it was a small town and would be a small town and might generate enough support to make the place succeed. But I’m convinced that without the wine industry growing up here, I don’t think it would have made it.

Were there other restaurants then?

Not really. A couple of steakhouses but they weren’t really trying anything.

Did living in the northwest change your approach as a chef?

At first, it was very difficult. It was difficult to get fresh ingredients like basil in the wintertime. But that changed rapidly, within about two or three years. Soon, farmers were bringing in a lot better produce – different things and much better quality.

Do you have a philosophy when it comes to putting wines on the list?

I like to showcase people I know and like but now you really have to have a balanced list. Some big old favorites, some of the new successes and a couple of unknowns that people might really appreciate discovering.

Is there something you’re excited to have on the wine list? 

Well, I like wine. I’m pleased to have Carlton Cellars on there. The guy who started it [], he and I met in the army fifty-some years ago and we stayed friends ever since. He came out and visited me here in Oregon, got the wine bug, had some success in the business world and got into the wine business. It’s really nice, I like that story.

What’s not to miss at the restaurant?

The ravioli. The pasta with gorgonzola sauce. The pizzas my daughter is making are terrific. If someone said I’m only going to have one thing, I’d push them toward the pasta. The Dungeness crab lasagna is fantastic, people go crazy for it.

Do you have any other advice for visitors?

It depends on how much time you have, but one of the best things you could do is divide your trip up between about two AVA’s a day. You don’t want to be going from Cristom to Elk Cove, you know? It’s just too far. I’ve almost quit telling people where to go except for some special places that are beautiful. The view at Lange is spectacular. The view from Youngberg Hill is very special. And some of the old guys – Bethel Heights is so dependable.

Where is this all headed?

Like I said, I don’t predict well. But I’m interested to see what happens with Chardonnay. I think there were some minor false starts, but there are some beautiful ones now. Pinot is established so that makes me think about other things. I think the area should be proud of its Pinot Gris. When David Lett planted it, it was the first time it was planted anywhere outside of the Old World. That’s interesting and something to be proud of. And people are making some very nice Rieslings.

Nick Pierano chats with Atticus Hotel in McMinnville, Oregon