My visits to Pepp & Dolores came at a particular moment in late May, the context too much a part of the experience to exclude from this review. The weather was suddenly beautiful, and after months of being shut down because of the novel coronavirus, parts of the city felt like they were releasing a breath that had been held for months as restrictions on indoor and outdoor restaurant service were loosened. Restaurants and bars were full of people—staying apart, but not all that far apart—and the only indication that anything was out of the ordinary was masks on the servers.
The city blocked off side streets to traffic to help restaurants accommodate more guests while adhering to capacity limits as they reopened, including 15th Street, where Pepp & Dolores built a dining tent. All the nearby windows were open and the breeze was blowing inside the tent; people were chatting like they hadn’t seen each other in years; and I was drinking a cold blood orange cocktail—lovely and longed for on a warm day. Meanwhile, my son was hypnotized by the Pepp & Dolores pasta machine, seen through a window from the street, as it extruded perfectly studded lumache. With the sun shining, it was one of those days so beautiful it felt almost unreal.
This day was, it turned out, a kind of mirage. A few days later, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and protests started around the country, including here in Over-the-Rhine. I spoke to Joe Lanni, cofounder of Thunderdome Restaurant Group, which owns Pepp & Dolores among several other restaurants in the city, when the demonstrations were still gathering steam. That afternoon, he had just learned of the city’s 8 p.m. curfew. The staff, which had just returned after weeks of shutdown, was about to be sent home.
The restaurant industry, already hurting badly during the pandemic, was now facing another upheaval. Pepp & Dolores had done its best to pivot during the shutdown, introducing family meal kits with antipasti, sauce, and fresh boil-at-home pasta, and simpler online ordering. They were trying, with carryout, to generate the sense of family and community that is at the heart of their latest restaurant.
Pepp & Dolores is named after Joe’s and his brother and fellow cofounder John’s Italian immigrant grandparents, Giuseppe and Addolorata. As with all of Thunderdome’s restaurants, you get a sense that they want to deliver a meal that satisfies many different kinds of people. (There is a reason they’re always packed.) The prices are reasonable, and the pasta entrées at the heart of the menu are about $15. The dishes are familiar in their flavors, but everything feels balanced and modulated and gradually perfected, an indication of the way their culinary team works together to get things right.
Within the borders of this crowd-pleasing fare, there is lovely variety: the limone pasta is zippy with lemon and chili flakes, and just the right mixture of tart and creamy; the deep meaty flavors on the mushroom toast are balanced with a nice acidity; and the heat in dishes like the eggplant involtini is just enough to wake up the sauce without overwhelming the flavor. The menu has a wealth of excellent vegetarian and pasta-alternative options. Even classics like the wedge salad, which could have been spoiled by too heavy a hand on the gorgonzola, are in perfect balance, and enlivened with touches like blistered tomatoes.
One of the pleasures at Pepp & Dolores is the extraordinary variety of pasta shapes and colors on display, including a squid ink fusilli that sort of reminded me of a black pasta caterpillar. They join other unfamiliar shapes like campanelle and casarecce, all of which are lovely, firm, and toothsome. Nothing is more ordinary than pasta, or more satisfying at its best.
It is one of Thunderdome’s special talents to find the surprises within the familiar and the comforting, from the long-simmered pork added to the signature Sunday Sauce to the airy amaretti biscuits that are served at the end of the meal in place of dessert.
When I asked Lanni what he had learned from this period that might prove useful going forward, he mentioned a few pragmatic things, like introducing carryout, for example, and more streamlined online ordering. But then, speaking more generally, he mentioned that this whole period has been a kind of stress test for their organization. They were seeing which parts broke under the strain and which managed to come through intact.
You can learn a lot from these crises. Not only about which people and institutions you can count on, but also about what you care enough to save. Particularly if those things are, it turns out, fragile. As Lanni points out, as a community we have built something special in Cincinnati. We have a dining scene that far outstrips, in breadth and quality, what you would expect for a city this size. Pepp & Dolores is another fine addition to this mosaic, one that depends on the survival of many other quality establishments to keep itself going. Right now, it is undeniably facing a life-threatening challenge. If we care enough about it, we need to work to sustain it.
Pepp & Dolores, 1501 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 419-1820