By Molly • Molly Walker • 

Nick's honored by James Beard Foundation

Marcus Larson / News-Register
Nick Peirano started his cafe in the 1970s. It s now run by his daughter and son-in-law, Carmen Peirano and Eric Ferguson
Marcus Larson / News-Register
Nick Peirano started his cafe in the 1970s. It's now run by his daughter and son-in-law, Carmen Peirano and Eric Ferguson

The awards are the culinary industry’s most prestigious. They will be presented on Monday, May 5, in New York City.

The America’s Classics honor is reserved for restaurants beloved for the quality of their food, their timeless appeal to diners and their reflection of the character of their community. It is sponsored by Coca-Cola.

Nick Peirano moved to McMinnville from his native San Francisco area, intent on finding a positive place to raise his family. He opened the restaurant, now managed by his daughter, Carmen Peirano, and her husband, Eric Ferguson, in 1977.

Nick’s grandparents had emigrated from Italy, in part to escape the country’s civil war and also to join the California Gold Rush. So he grew up around Old World Italian cooking.

Restaurant offerings include an array of pasta dishes, a classic minestrone soup, wood-fired pizza and selections of antipasti like Fino in Fondo Salumi, which Carmen and Eric make themselves and market next door.

The lunch menu adds panini sandwiches and the dinner menu a range of meat and vegetable specialties, all featuring Northwest seasonal ingredients. The restaurant also boasts an extensive list of premium Northwest and Italian wines.

Nick worked as a cook to put himself through college, completing a degree in political science at San Francisco State University after a tour in the military.

When he learned a vacant café space was available in McMinnville, he promptly headed north. He cleaned and painted the facility in preparation of a Feb. 4 opening.

Some of his fondest memories date to that period.

“Initally, there was a little apprehension,” Nick said of the community’s response. But he said it didn’t last long.

“People tried us and spoke well of us,” he said. “It was very nice.”

He recalled, “When I started, everybody had the same meal.” In fact, he said wine columnist Matt Kramer once remarked that Nick’s provided less choice than an Army mess hall.

Nick said he started with a single multiple-course meal of the day because he didn’t know what he was doing. He said keeping it simple helped him focus on quality.

When he opened, there were only about six wineries operating in the area. In fact, for a time, Nick’s carried every wine available in Oregon.

“I didn’t realize how much those wineries appreciated it,” Nick recalled. “They were really nice to us, sending us a lot of business.”

Through the years, Nick made friendships with winery owners and their families, forging mutually beneficial relationships. In the process, Nick’s became a popular place for winemakers to spend time.

The wine industry has since exploded. And McMinnville has undergone plenty of change itself.

When Nick moved to McMinnville, there were 12,000 residents. Its downtown was anchored by JCPenney and Thrifty Drug, plus there was five-and-dime store where Harvest Fresh is now located.

Nick credits the McMinnville Downtown Association with helping foster downtown vibrance, noting how it has more of a boutique feel now. “People from out of town really love walking around our downtown,” he said.

Nick is proud to have the restaurant remain in the family.

“It’s great that my daughter and son-in-law took it over,” he said. “They took it over and brought in a lot of energetic ideas and professional schooling.”

After graduating from McMinnville High School, Carmen spent 10 years modeling in San Francisco. Then she enrolled in the culinary arts program at San Francisco City College.

She and Eric, a professional chef, met on the staff of San Francisco’s Quince restaurant. And they have worked as a team ever since.

Before assuming command of day-to-day operations seven years ago, they spent time in Italy working with acclaimed chef Lorenzo Polegri. They also cooked together at the James Beard House in New York.

When they took over, they updated the menu, but retained beloved dishes like Nick’s Dungeness crab and pine nut lasagna and his legendary minestrone soup.

One new change, Nick’s Back Room, is a popular bar with access off the alley.

Nick himself likes to hang out there. He can be found shooting pool many nights.

In announcing the winners, the foundation stated in its press release, “Nick’s has forged a marriage of Oregon Wine Country and Northern Italian cooking that’s as worthy of pilgrimage and patronage as the Oregon pinot noirs on its superb wine list.”

Carmen said they were notified of the honor before Christmas, but were asked to keep it confidential until the public announcement. And she said that wasn’t easy to do.

“It was great news, but we couldn’t talk about it,” Nick said. “It was difficult.”

“It’s been such an honor to come up with the wine industry in Oregon,” Carmen said. She feels the award speaks to the years that the restaurant and the wineries have worked together.

“We wouldn’t be here without those pioneers,” she added.

For Carmen, the restaurant has been an integral part of her life. She was just 2 1/2 when her father launched it. She landed her first job there at the age of 12, as a night shift dishwasher.

Now, she and Eric have two young daughters of their own — Giorgia and Elisabeth, better known as Lillie. They constitute another generation growing up in the restaurant business.

“There are so very many amazing moments,” Carmen said. She cited the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration as one of the activities whose association with the restaurant has provided rich rewards.

Nick recalled the days when the celebration was merely an idea.

“Some people in town wanted to do an event to highlight the wine industry,” he said. While other options were considered, eventually the group decided on a high-end wine-centric event focusing on Oregon wine.

It quickly grew, adding first California wines, then wines from the Burgundy region of France. Along the way, it became an event drawing people from around the world.

“I’m really proud of the restaurant’s involvement,” Nick said.

The event, which will celebrate its 28th year this July, has received numerous accolades. Bon Appétite called it “unquestionably the greatest for lovers of pinot noir.” The New York Times said, “Nothing else is as well-run and instructive.”

Nick’s has also been involved in an annual benefit for Habitat for Humanity for the past 18 years.

“I think we’ve generated enough money to build two or three houses,” Nick said. “It’s a nice organization. It does good stuff.”

The restaurant has also enabled Carmen and Eric to spin off two new businesses — Fino in Fondo, a salumeria, and Peirano & Daughters, a deli and specialty market.

The family plans to attend the awards ceremony, to be in the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.

“Every year, the America’s Classics Awards are a favorite part of the ceremony,” said Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. “These honorees represent the unique American dream of people who have created enduring, quality restaurants and food establishments that reflect the character and hospitality of their cities and community.”

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