After two decades of being dormant, Little Pepinas will become Kobe An Japanese Fondue

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We've written quite a bit about the demise of Denver's red-sauce joints, the old-school neighborhood restaurants that once formed the nucleus of northwest Denver, or, as some called it, Little Italy. After 66 years as the city's longest family-owned Italian restaurant, Pagliacci's shuttered last year; the remodeled Gaetano's, while still loosely rooted in Italian cuisine, in no way resembles -- in its aesthetics or its menu -- the glory of its heyday as a fixture for the city's most notorious mobsters; and Carbone's, the iconic Italian sandwich shop and market on 38th Avenue, closed earlier this year, allegedly just temporarily, although the space is still dark and there's no visible sign that matriarch and owner Rosa Lenardo plans to reopen any time in the near future.

See also:
- Red alert: Denver's old-school Italian joints are disappearing
- Pagliacci's, Denver's oldest single-family-owned Italian spot, will close August 19
- Photos: RiNo's on Blake opens in the former Brauns space

I grew up on that side of town, spent numerous days and nights in all of those restaurants with my family, but it was at Little Pepinas, an opulent Italian restaurant -- at least at the time -- where we spent the majority of our nights.

It was my mother's favorite restaurant, and even now, more than twenty years after chef and owner Richard Blick abruptly walked away from the kitchen, she still waxes nostalgic. We danced, often, with Dino Santoro, the restaurant's insatiably flirtatious maître d'; we cooked in the kitchen, making red sauce and osso bucco with Blick, who was enamored, as was Santoro, with my mom.

I had my first underage cocktail at Little Pepinas; my stepfather, an academic curmudgeon who despises just about everything except history books, adored Little Pepinas, at least until that one evening when he innocently inhaled too many martinis and found himself face-down on the sidewalk. One night, while Pepinas was closed for a private party -- it had been bought out by some marvelous transvestites from Trinidad -- we were summoned, by phone, to join them; it was one of the best nights of my life. My rehearsal dinner was at Little Pepinas. Someone -- I don't remember the culprit -- had way too much wine and teetered backwards, breaking the window. Santoro celebrated by uncorking another bottle of Champagne.

When Little Pepinas closed, I was devastated. Several years later, when Santoro passed away, I sobbed. I have no idea where Blick is -- or whether he's still living -- but his unassailable food made an indelible mark on my life, and for years, I've driven past Little Pepinas, stopping in front of the boarded up building, now in disarray, to plot how I could sneak back at night to pilfer the scripted sign that's bolted to the crumbling stucco exterior. The only reason why I haven't is because I can't reach that high. Still, I want it. Desperately.

And perhaps, just maybe, the new owners will give it to me. The space will soon become Kobe An Japanese Fondue, presumably a sibling of Kobe An, a long-standing Japanese restaurant and sushi bar in a Lakewood strip mall. After more than twenty years, the desolate Pepinas, located at 3400 Osage Street, will rise again, only instead of Chianti in straw baskets and shrimp fra diavolo, sake and shabu will take their place. A liquor-license hearing with the Department of Excise and Licenses is scheduled for Friday, April 26, at the Wellington Webb building.



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15 comments
gofastgo
gofastgo

With sorrow and happiness, I recall my first experience at Little Pepina's, a restaurant run by two sisters out of their home.  Year was 1960, you sat in their front room, they cooked in the homes kitchen, it was wonderful.  It never had that same ambiance when it was opened as a restaurant with a store front. The food was okay, but how can you recreate someones front room? I suppose I'm nostalgic for the old days, but some, or most, of them were all that people from era say they were, kind, gentle, respectful, patriotic, American.

fischer31
fischer31

What a bitter sweet article. Little Pepina's was such a large part of my childhood. My father was the one and only waiter/owner (yes owner) Dino. Not many know this little fact, but Dino and Giovanni my uncle were the owners of Little Pepina's for many years prior to the closing.

Seeing the building all boarded up is such a sad sight. I remember as a child going to the restaurant with my dad to spend the day with him and my uncle. I'd watch him work a dinning room full of people with the grace of an orchestra conductor. I never saw anyone leave that place unhappy. Not only was the food amazing (how I long for some toasted ravioli) but the experience was one most can't forget.

As a teen I'd drive up and visit both my dad and mom (Anna) and my favorite uncle always would put a smile on my face. Filling my friends and I full of food and sending us out on our way. Even my bridal shower was there attended by both my father and uncle Johnny!

My dad always made sure that everyone who crossed those doors were treated as if they were family whether it was you're first time or hundredth time in. Even his employees right down to the dishwasher was treated well. I will never forget some that had so little and my dad would always buy coats or gloves and Christmas presents for some.

The Santoro brothers made Little Pepina's. The experiences that are remembered there always include those two. The love they had for that restaurant was always visible. Sadly both my father and uncle have passed. Sometimes I'd drive by and see the sign and think of all the wonderful memories there. How sad to see it all come to an end.

elyssachavez92
elyssachavez92

Kobe An is THE BEST JAPANESE FOOD EVER!! I know that this will be a success..

tmartinez303
tmartinez303

Little Pepinas was a part of my childhood. My grandma, Charlotte, owned the home next to it since my now deceased father was a kid... We're talking since back when the Northside was still just that and not the highlands, which I will not recognize as its proper name. I myself wondered what was going to become of it and am somewhat sad that it too will follow along the highland path. My dad, Marsie Apodaca, used to sit on that patio on weekend nights playing cards with everyone while I would crawl around grabbing whatever they dropped on the ground. Mrs. Rose that lived in the back would always give me fresh cookies... I miss the old neighborhood and its rich and colorful history... :(

ericsmiles2
ericsmiles2

I was looking through today's Facebook article on restaurant closings and thought I would do a search on one of my favorite restaurants, Little Pepina's. To say that good times were had by all is an understatement. Some of the very best times of my life were at Little Pepina's. I also remember sitting with Giovanni (Johnny), Dino (Clemente) and his wife Anna in the lounge as salvage and rubbish crews dismantled the kitchen. It was actually just a month or so before 9/11 and it was hard not to cry. It was hard then as it is now.

I was the last Chef at Pepina's, having spent the last decade of my life there. Dino and Johnny had become almost like father figures to me. There were times when our lives seem intertwined, weekend conventions, camping trips and the hundreds of midnight fishing trips and meals at their home. All of this surrounding one little Italian restaurant that meant so much to so many.

I wonder how different a place Little Pepina's would have been without the Santoro brothers good humor, knowledge and warmth, filling the rooms with more love than any plate of pasta or any bottle of wine could ever do alone. 

Denreview
Denreview

I have always found it extremely strange how long this place has stood empty, particularly with the sign still on the side.

What exactly is Japanese fondue?  With sake instead of beer or wine in certain dips? 

ChefBlick
ChefBlick

Hi gang, It delighted me to see this article. An old employee forwarded the link to me, actually he is quite a bit younger than I. It also warms my heart to know that I was part of peoples fond memories. I still love the art of cooking and love to satiate  peoples appetites with fine cuisine. I enjoyed so much the days of Little Pepinas and were some of the very best years of my life. I raised my three children there, made many good friends, laughed , cried, sang and entertained. Maybe I should open a Little Pepinas in Seattle. If anyone would like to contact me, use chefblick@gmail.com

your loyal servant

Chef Rich 

grizzly323
grizzly323

I worked at Little Pepinas as a 17yo kid. Rich made my life hell but was a great boss and I loved busing tables for Dino. He could tell stories for days. Great guy. This article made me realize how much I miss him and the gang. Sad to see little Italy fall resturant by resturant

ScubaSteve
ScubaSteve

" A liquor-license hearing with the Department of Excise and Licenses is scheduled for Friday, April 2, at the Wellington Webb building. "

April 2nd was last Tuesday!

meanstreetsofsouthdenver
meanstreetsofsouthdenver

Hey Lori I ask here because I don't know where else to do it and I'm betting you will check the comments to this story today (great btw; I moved to Denver in 1979 and went to work for an attorney of large Italian family and as a result hit all these red sauce joints--Gaetanos & Patsy's and Little Pepina's and my fave, Pagliacci's--in their prime and then after their prime, too) but my question is, do you know if anything is up with the Cherokee since (I guess) the deal to buy it fell through? Or didn't it?



gofastgo
gofastgo

@fischer31 If you read what I just posted, two sisters owned this restaurant before anyone else, not sure if your dad was related to them or not, I don't know their names.  My wife and I went there in 1960, sat in their front room where they served us dinner, just like my nanny did back in Harrisburg Pa. back in the day (only not in the front room, in the kitchen, lol)  Days gone by, wonderful memories of events that you recall with fondness.

Denver Dave
Denver Dave topcommenter

@meanstreetsofsouthdenver Lori will probably get back to you on the Cherokee issue but my understanding was that a deal was in the works for Paul Reilly and his sister to open Beast and Bottle at that location but after they did their due diligence on the state of the property they took a pass thinking that the refurbishment would be too costly.  They chose to go into the old Olivea space instead.

meanstreetsofsouthdenver
meanstreetsofsouthdenver

well it seems to be just sitting there, no realtor sign, nothing on-line indicating it is for sale or for lease. Would seem that somebody would be interested, if it were on the market; stuff is happening in the Golden Triangle.

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