On the corner of Little Lonsdale and Exhibition streets in the city is a tree-lined courtyard strung with fairy lights. To the right, enclosed in a clear marquee, is the American-leaning Trunk Diner, which serves quesadillas, hot dogs and jalapeno poppers. But beyond the diner, the space that used to be Trunk Bar and Restaurant has been transformed.
In the past the heritage-listed, faded red-brick building has housed a synagogue, a women’s shelter and a kindergarten. Today it’s home to Pepe’s Italian & Liquor, a moody and inviting restaurant serving Italian-American fare.
Owner Nick Kutcher felt it was time to change things up after the restaurant’s 12-year run with a Mediterranean menu. He says starting over around 10 years in was always part of the plan, but it was difficult to do.
“It got to the point where I didn’t love it anymore, but all these people were still coming in and enjoying,” he says. “It was difficult to say goodbye, but I wanted to fall back in love with my business. And now, I’m in love again.”
Pepe’s is inspired by Kutcher’s annual visits to New York. Earlier this year, he took Trunk’s executive chef, Orazio Cutuli, and restaurant designer Nick Cox of Projects of Imagination there for a month-long research trip, during which they visited around 40 Italian family restaurants, trattorias and bars.
“I really wanted them to understand what New York-Italian food is – that sort of ‘immigrant cuisine’ that’s unique to them but also similar to what we have with Italian-Australian food,” he says.
Many of the spots Kutcher and crew visited had a similar theme in their naming – Roberta’s, Julianna's, Emilio’s – so they felt it was only appropriate their new diner have a possessive, too.
"We don't have cacio e pepe on the menu here, but every Italian restaurant in New York did. We ended every night with it and we’d say, ‘Ciao, pepe!’ instead of good night. Eventually it just became ‘Pepe's’," he says with a laugh.
Despite the dish’s absence, Cutuli’s menu is varied and brimming with casual, comforting food designed to be shared. Diamond clams arrive in the half shell topped with garlic butter, guanciale and breadcrumbs in a take on Clams Casino, which originated in Rhode Island in the US. Salami and pickles are served alongside slices of warm cheese-filled focaccia.
The pizza menu covers the classics – meatball, pepperoni and margherita – with a base of San Marzano tomato red sauce. There’s also a ‘nduja and artichoke number, and a vegetarian ortolana with eggplant, zucchini, mushroom and pumpkin.
When it comes to pasta, choose from tortelloni stuffed with buffalo ricotta topped with bolognese sauce and parmesan cheese; spicy rigatoni with a vodka-tomato sauce and Calabrian chilli; and baked gnocchi with four cheeses – parmesan, taleggio, scarmoza and squacquerone (a soft fresh cheese from Romagna).
For mains, there’s a family-sized veal parmigiana that is deep-fried and topped with red sauce, mozzarella and basil; a 12-hour lamb shoulder; and salty-sweet barbeque pork ribs that fall off the bone. For dessert, there’s an ice-cream sundae for two, made with black cherries and hot chocolate fudge.
“In New York, you could be really good at making just the one thing and that's what you'll be known for, but it's a little different here,” Kutchers says. “You have to be more versatile; you can't just cook one good pizza and have that as your claim to fame.”
The drinks list is just as varied. There’s a full page dedicated to Martinis, and while there are plenty of familiar and classic cocktails, you'll also find a Burnt Popcorn Manhattan made with Woodford rye, popcorn, cacao and macadamia bitters; and an Apple Pie-Tini with vanilla vodka, Fireball whisky and green apple liqueur. There are more than 80 wines priced at less than $100 a bottle, with 15 by-the-glass, and a reserve list offers drops that go up to $600.
The revamped space takes cues from the Italian-American family restaurants that Kutcher and Cox visited on their trip. The white-tiled pillars in the centre of the room are the only remnants of its old life. They divide the space into bar – with its long zinc countertop, miniature lamps and back-lit signage – and dining room. The latter has burgundy leather banquette seating and a mural by Belgian illustrator Jan Van Der Veken, who has designed several New Yorker covers, on the back wall.
The waiters and bartenders wear velvet bowties, a small but intentional detail that adds a touch of glamour to a night out here.
“This is all a bit of a theatrical experience – there’s a sense of a big night to it,” Kutcher says. “We've got big-band music and old-school jazz playing. It's just a fun, approachable experience.”
Pepe’s Italian & Liquor
275 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
(03) 9663 7994
Mon to Fri 12pm–12am
Sat & Sun 4pm–12am
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on September 23, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.