By Jim Gullo
Special to Oregon.com

Nick, her father, was in the back room where he spends most of his time now, among the pool table and bar with all of the bottles of Oregon and Italian wines lined up.  Nick always prided himself on having a great list of wines, especially pinot noirs from the Willamette Valley.   He was running the vacuum cleaner; he keeps the back room spruced up. 

In the kitchen, Carmen Peirano, Nick’s daughter who has taken over the cooking from her pop after thirty years, was hand-rolling pasta for the lunch service that was about to begin.  Good wheat flour, eggs and salt pushed and prodded into a bright-yellow dough, folded and run through the hand-cranked pasta machine.  “Nick’s was always cutting edge,” she said of the restaurant, Nick’s Italian Café on Third Street in McMinnville, that her dad started in 1977.  It has been one of the top restaurants in the state for nearly that long, a place that somehow manages to marry a neighborhood, family feeling to Italian fine-dining, with five-course dinners for fifty dollars or a simple, perfect pizza for ten.  “We were literally teaching people how to eat artichokes,” she added. “And handmade pasta.”

Carmen grew up in this kitchen, washed dishes as a teenager, cooked her way through high school and now runs it with her husband, Eric Ferguson after the couple met as cooks at a San Francisco restaurant, went off to Italy to cook together, and came back to Oregon to continue the Nick’s tradition.  And start a few new traditions of their own.  Carmen looked up from the pasta-making as a vendor delivered an entire dressed lamb.  “We work really closely with local farmers and producers,” she said.  “We pride ourselves on using local ingredients.  It’s not even a movement in Italy; it’s a way of life.”  Into the kitchen comes everything from cardoons and cavalo nero kale in the winter to gorgeous tomatoes, peaches and basil in the summer, all delivered from farms that you could drive to in a half an hour.

One of Nick’s old customers wanders into the kitchen to say hello.  “Dude, you should try the tripe,” says Eric by way of greeting.  “It’s the best one I’ve made yet.”  Eric slices paper-thin slices of the house-made charcuterie that the couple now make: Salamis and prosciuttos and speck, all aged on the premises for months and years, and then served on the new wooden trays that Eric’s friend made from old wine barrels.  Very simple and rustic, and the meat is melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  A wood-fired oven that the chefs installed in the restaurant’s remodel this winter throws sparks from the oak tinder that he inserts.  The oven will produce crispy pizzas piled with spicy arugula, or pork ribs from nearby Carlton Farms pigs.  “We became obsessed with the mixed grills of sausages and ribs, all served with olive oil, that were cooked in wood ovens in Italy,” says Carmen.

It’s simple, elegant food, so spot-on, so reverent to tradition from this attractive young couple. She was a fashion model for sixteen years before giving up the runway and returning to the kitchen.  He is blond and strong and without a whiff of foodie airs.  “Now we’re just an old, married couple running a restaurant,” she laughs.

In the back room, his vacuuming complete, Nick starts his daily crossword puzzle.  And people come in the front door, ready to eat well.

Nick's Italian Cafe
521 NE 3rd St
Mcminnville, OR 97128-4614
(503) 434-4471