Iconic wine country restaurant Nick’s Italian Cafe returns after shocking closure

As it did for most people who spent time in the Willamette Valley, Nick’s Italian Cafe quickly wove its way into Thomas Ghinazzi’s life. After his daughter was born in 2014, the year he moved to Oregon, his parents brought Nick’s takeout to the hospital. Nick’s was the first place he and his wife ate out after getting married. And it was the obvious choice to celebrate the day they learned his father-in-law was cancer-free.

This spring, Ghinazzi, Jordan Neale, Scott Baldwin and Aaron Nieman of De Ponte Cellars hope to reopen Nick’s in all its glory, less than a year after the award-winning McMinnville restaurant’s unexpected closure.

“It’s not just important for the Willamette Valley, it’s a flagship restaurant for Oregon,” Ghinazzi said. “You’d go in and see these pictures throughout history of Dick Ponzi, and Erath and Lett, and all these pioneers of Oregon wine that have made this area unique. Nick’s is such an important place for this community out there.”

According to Ghinazzi, the plan is for “Nick’s to stay Nick’s.” Carmen Peirano, who took over day-to-day restaurant operations from her father Nick in 2007, has offered to run Ghinazzi through some of her family’s signature recipes, including the famous minestrone soup, meatballs and marinara and Dungeness crab lasagna.

The wine list will feature both local wineries — Nick’s was a pioneer in promoting Oregon wine since its founding in 1977 — alongside Italian bottles, with plenty of options in the $45-$90 range, with both “big ticket stuff” and “some diamonds in the rough.”

“Being able to get a couple of pastas, a salad and a bottle of wine and not break the bank is a crucial part of this,” Ghinazzi said.

One big change: No pool table in the back room, though there will still be a “speakeasy small bites family kind of feel back there,” Ghinazzi said.

Ghinazzi, who rose through the ranks at Chicago restaurants including the Michelin-starred Crofton on Wells, spent time cooking at Ponzi Vineyards and the Blue Goat, also runs the Carlton the surf-and-turf restaurant Earth & Sea, which he opened with Baldwin in 2019. Ghinazzi’s background is Italian — his grandfather and great grandfather ran small butcher shops outside of Chicago.

Nick’s founder Nick Peirano moved to Oregon nearly 50 years ago, opening his restaurant with pasta recipes inherited from his grandmother at 521 N.E. Third St, McMinnville in 1977. The restaurant quickly became a beloved hangout for winemakers in the surrounding hills, as well as a crucial showcase for their wines.

In 2014, Nick’s Italian Cafe was given a James Beard America’s Classics award, which acknowledges “restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.” Only one other Oregon restaurant — The Original Pancake House in Southwest Portland — has received the honor.

The restaurant closed unexpectedly last July.

The Earth & Sea team actually inquired about Nick’s back in August, Ghinazzi said, shortly after it closed. When it hit the market again in January, they pounced.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good plan for how to bring it back to a way that it can be sustainable,” Ghinazzi said. “It is a ton of pressure though. It’s one thing creating your own new restaurant like we did with Earth & Sea, it’s a whole ‘nother to open one that’s so beloved by the community and has been family-owned since the 1970s.”

Further reading:

Nick’s Italian Cafe, ‘iconic’ Oregon restaurant, closes without warning

Thomas Ghinazzi and his partners hope to reopen Nick’s Italian Cafe as soon as this May at 521 N.E. Third St.

— Michael Russell; mrussell@oregonian.com

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