For the first time in 35 years, Guiseppe “Peppino” Gargano will not be cooking for a room of couples on Valentine’s Day. His landmark restaurant Peppino’s, which introduced Madison to fine dining Italian style, closed its doors forever on Dec. 23.
This year, he’ll spend Valentine’s evening at home, sipping champagne with his family, looking back and telling stories. The one about the Italian tenor with the Chicago opera who sang an aria in the dining room as part of his tip. The visiting performers, like Harry Belafonte, and the politicians. The lady who fainted when he brought a whole cooked octopus to her table. And, best of all, stories about the regulars who became close friends.
The first part of Gargano’s story takes place in Sicily, where he grew up the “youngest and spoiledest” in a family of five children. His father was a wealthy lemon cultivator and exporter who was financially ruined by a blight that turned his lemons black. At 18, Gargano left the rocky island off the boot of Italy looking for opportunity and adventure.
He settled in Madison, where two of his brothers, Gino and Biaggio, had opened pizza parlors. It was 1967, when Madison’s dining options consisted of supper clubs, fish fries, and spaghetti with meatballs in what remained of the city’s Little Italy. With no cooking knowledge other than what he’d seen in his mother’s kitchen — without even a high school diploma — Gargano began poring over cookbooks and learning sophisticated mainland Italian cooking, instead of the Sicilian food of his youth. He knew he couldn’t reproduce the singular cuisine of Sicily, with its emphasis on fresh fish and the influences of its many invaders, particularly the Arab Moors.
“If you want to eat at a good Sicilian restaurant, you have to go to Sicily,” he said. “My (restaurant) cooking has never been Sicilian. Sicilian food is too complicated, with a lot of ingredients. It would not have been economically feasible. To succeed you have to use ingredients that are easy to obtain and to cook, and serve things that people will accept. Most Americans have never tasted real Sicilian food, things like stuffed sardines.”
He believed Madison residents would accept the food of mainland Italy — its pasta, antipasta, red and cream sauces, meats — and that they were ready to step up from pizza and spaghetti with meatballs.
He was also convinced that people wanted a soothing, romantic atmosphere for special nights out, with soft opera music in the background, candlelight, fresh flowers and courtly servers. His Peppino’s restaurants (first on State Street, then University Avenue, and, for the past 11 years, in an 1864 flatiron building off Capitol Square) became favorite destinations for celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, big dates and marriage proposals.
Gargano threw himself into his restaurants, doing at least 90 percent of the kitchen work, honoring any request a customer would make, and spending time with diners as if they were guests in his home.
“I don’t like anyone else making my sauces, or my soups or desserts; I clean my own meat.”
His work ethic and perfectionism cost him. His first two marriages (the first produced daughters Angela and Regina; the second, to a French citizen, brought sons Francesco and Peter) ended in divorce. But his romantic spirit, so evident at his restaurants, was still alive when, in 2001 when he was touring Armenia, he met Anahit. “Guiseppe wrote the most beautiful letters to me,” said Anahit, who is now his wife.
Gargano’s story won’t end with the restaurant’s closing. His retirement plans include writing a book about his life in the kitchen and launching a line of his sauces that will include the well-known creamy garlic — to be named La Reginella by Peppino, in honor of the daughter killed in a car crash at age 17.
The final dinner at Peppino’s last week offered Gargano and customers a chance to reminisce before the doors closed, and there was no shortage of stories to tell on the other side of the kitchen, either.
Word of Gargano’s plans to close his restaurant reached a woman now living in the South. She’d met her future husband at Peppino’s, he’d proposed to her there and later, over veal Florentine, she went into labor and was rushed to the hospital before she could finish her food.
She returned to Madison last week, and on Monday had a meal at Peppino’s with her husband. Two nights later, during Peppino’s swan song, she returned for dinner with the daughter who’d interrupted her meal 29 years ago. They ordered veal Florentine.
Peppino’s Pasta con Pomodori Secchi
(Pasta with Sun-Dried Tomatoes)
1 pound spaghetti
6 to 8 ounces of white onion, thinly sliced
Pomace-olive oil (see first note)
8 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 pound sun-dried tomatoes (each sliced in 2 or 3 parts, do not re-hydrate)
1 small bunch fresh mint (or, if preferred, parsley, basil, or oregano), chopped and set aside
Sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and red pepper flakes, to taste
For crunch: crushed toasted almonds, potato chips, bread crumbs or mustard seeds
Extra-virgin olive oil
Pour enough pomace-olive oil to coat the bottom of a 12-to 14-inch skillet. Lightly sauté the vegetables, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, put the spaghetti in a pot of boiling water that contains some sea salt and oil; cook 7 minutes.
Scoop 8 ounces of water from the spaghetti cooking pot (you want the starch in the water, so don’t use tap or bottled water), and pour it into the onion mixture in the sauté pan. Cover the sauté pan and let the mixture steam for about one minute.
When the spaghetti is cooked to al dente, drain it in a colander. Do NOT pour cold water on the spaghetti. Put the spaghetti in the sauté pan, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, add the mint or herbs, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and toss thoroughly. Divide and put on plates, then sprinkle the pasta with the almonds (a Sicilian tradition) or other crunchy topping. Serves four.
Notes: Pomace-oil burns at higher temperatures than extra-virgin olive oil. Use it only during the sautéeing process; use extra-virgin olive oil for tossing cooked pasta or dipping because it tastes much better.
• Cook pasta only until the water is translucent, when it’s al dente and easiest to digest. Peppino’s favorite pasta is Fara San Martino, and he always uses semolina pasta because it is hard to overcook and retains a golden color. The extra-virgin olive oil he recommends is Castelvetrano.
• Peppino does not reconstitute the dried tomatoes in this recipe before cooking because that would cause their red color to bleed onto the other ingredients; he prefers to keep the distinct colors of red, green and white (the colors of the Italian flag) on the plate.