Sons build on their father’s teachings

June 14, 2013
Tony Nicolella, left, and his brother, Rob, are shown outside Peppino’s, the restaurant on South Main Street in Washington that was operated for many years by their late father, Bob. The brothers learned from their father and are in the process of remodeling the restaurant after fire gutted the establishment in December. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Tony Nicolella had a hammer, and as a kid, he’d hammer in the morning, evening and all over Tylerdale – or at least where he was allowed.

“My dad bought me my first hammer,” he said, reflecting on how he became enamored of building things at a young age. “When he said we were going to the lumber yard, I perked up.”

Tony’s brother, Rob, was a mere grade-schooler when his father introduced him to the wonderful world of food, which would evolve into a personal vocation and avocation.

“I was rolling meatballs with my dad when I was 10,” he said, smiling.

Their father, Bob Nicolella – business leader, carpenter, restaurateur, city council member – died about a year ago, but his presence endures thanks largely to the lessons he imparted to his seven offspring and to the skills he fostered in them.

Soon, his version of home schooling will pay off in a Father’s Day gift for anyone who appreciates quality dining, and in a posthumous present the family patriarch deserves.

Tony, a licensed contractor, and Rob, a caterer and cook, are resurrecting Peppino’s Restaurant and Bar and dedicating its return to their dad’s memory. Six months after a fire destroyed much of their bar-restaurant in downtown Washington, and three months after Tony began renovations, 234 S. Main St. is on the verge of hopping again.

The brothers plan to reopen in the next couple of weeks. The interior will have a different look – a differently shaped bar, a larger dining area and the addition of an upstairs banquet room and outdoor seating. But the revived Peppino’s will serve the same Italian cuisine and other dishes for which it is known.

“My dad always wanted to have a restaurant,” Tony said, “and he loved this building.”

Now both are coming back.

‘This was bad’

Tony closed the bar of the two-story structure about 11 p.m. Dec. 30, 25 hours before New Year’s. There would be no celebrating at Peppino’s, for shortly after he departed, fire broke out. The blaze, determined to be electrical in nature, destroyed the bar near the front entrance and caused extensive damage to the dining area.

The catering business, which Rob operates in a building next door, was undamaged.

“This was bad,” Tony said. “Most buildings wouldn’t have survived, but the fire couldn’t go anywhere because of the concrete and bricks” separating the bar and restaurant from the rest of the structure.

Delayed by investigations, Tony began restoration March 6. It included ripping out the floor, renovating the kitchen and restoring the smoke-devastated dining area. As of late last week, he was closing in on finishing the new bar.

He has done most of the rebuilding, working about 12 hours every day for the past three months. “There was a 36-hour span recently where I never left,” said Tony, who is single and lives next door.

His interest in craftsmanship, of course, was fueled by his father, a union carpenter. But Tony continually expanded his expertise, and honed his skills, by taking college-level courses in woodworking and tool sharpening en route to acquiring his contracting license.

The lengthy hours inside the ravaged restaurant have been a labor of love – for what he does and for his father.

“I have a passion for carpentry and for construction in general. My dad was that way. He always kept his hammer nearby. He remodeled our house. My dad worked until he got tired. There was no 8-to-4 (shift) with him.”

Bob Nicolella never got tired of teaching something to his seven children.

“I wish I knew how many meatballs I’ve rolled,” said Rob, 48, of Canonsburg, who is engaged to be married. “Everything I learned about cooking came from him. The Navy was where he learned how to cook for a large number of people.”

That was another tradition he would pass down.


Bob Nicolella was born in Washingtion Jan. 30, 1926, the son of Italian immigrants. He attended Washington High School, as would his children. But unlike them, their father did not graduate.

“He quit high school to join the Navy,” Rob said. “This was right after Pearl Harbor. His mom signed the papers.”

His mother, Nicolina, had taught him to cook years earlier, while she was operating the Kozy Kottage restaurant on East Maiden Street. Cooking became Bob’s specialty in the military, where he prepared meals for commissioned officers – an experience that would serve him well years later, when he would be in charge of serving large groups.

After World War II, Bob and his brother, Joe, formed a small construction company, Nicolella Brothers. They built homes and apartments in the city, then tried a new endeavor – a burger-ice cream shop.

HiFi opened near Washington High School in the early 1950s, before the school had a cafeteria. “A lot of kids went there,” Tony said.

Peppino’s seeds were sewn in 1961, when Bob bought a small deli, Ben’s 57 Varieties, on Wylie Avenue in the Tylerdale section of Washington. He would operate it as a deli and catering business, Peppino’s Specialized Food, for nearly a quarter-century before scratching that restaurant itch.

In 1985, he purchased the Bassettown Inn – formerly Julia’s Bar – on South Main. It wasn’t an easy sell.

“I told him this place was for sale,” Tony said. “He said, ‘Tony, I don’t want Julia’s Bar.’ Then he went through the place, from the basement to the attic, and ended up buying it from a building and loan.”

And succeeding as a restaurateur.

Bob, a full-time union carpenter for many years, also had a passion for the city and successfully ran for Washington council in the late 1980s. He would be in office for 20 years, heading the Parks and Recreation Department first, then the Street Department.

He died May 8, 2012, at age 86, leaving behind his wife of 51 years, Barbara, six of his children and a fabulous legacy.

Eyeing the reopening

His sons, Tony and Rob, are the officers of the recently incorporated Peppino’s LLC. Their mother, who had been the sole proprietor, has retired. One of Tony and Rob’s sisters, Barbara, of Peters Township, is a longtime account executive with Coca-Cola who does paperwork and computer work for the business.

The other surviving siblings are Billy of Washington, Mary Jo Verardi of O’Hara Township and Roberta Jean Nicolella of Silver Spring, Md. Their brother, Mark, is deceased.

Though a reopening date is not definite, Peppino’s should be back in business this month, Tony said. He was aiming for May 8, the anniversary of his dad’s passing, or May 12, Mother’s Day, but neither was doable.

Color schemes aren’t the only changes. The bar is nine feet shorter and cut differently; seating has been increased from 42 to 60; bistro seating will be out front; and a banquet facility is planned for upstairs. (Tony will tackle the second floor, an apartment unit destroyed by fire years ago, following the grand opening. He hopes to have it operational by Christmas.)

Peppino’s hours will be 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday … for now. “We may have some Sunday luncheon and dinner events,” Tony said. “And we may expand the evening hours to 11. The market will dictate that.”

Though woodworking is Tony’s forte, it isn’t his only focus. He said he does a lot of cooking, as well, and some bartending, in addition to the formidable chore of running Peppino’s LLC with Rob.

Versatility may not be genetic, but it runs in the Nicolella clan.

“My dad wore a lot of hats,” Tony said proudly, “and he wore them all well.”

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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