Over-the-Rhine Italian Eatery Pepp & Dolores Pays Tribute to Founders’ Grandparents with a Pasta-Centric Menu

Thunderdome Restaurant Group owners Joe and John Lanni create family-style ambiance with a menu featuring housemade pasta and plenty of shareables

click to enlarge The exterior of Pepp & Dolores - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The exterior of Pepp & Dolores

Recently, I went to Over-the-Rhine on a late afternoon outing with several friends to celebrate one of their weddings. We started at a couple of bars and then hit the sidewalk to find someplace for dinner. Rather stupidly — OK, very stupidly — we didn’t think ahead to the fact that we would be wanting dinner in Cincinnati’s busiest neighborhood at around 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night.

I’m sure you can guess what happened as we walked into place after place asking for a table for five. No, we didn’t have a reservation, and so the wait estimates ranged from 90 minutes to three hours. One three-hour quote was a response we got at the newest hit restaurant in the ’hood, Pepp & Dolores. (We eventually gave up on eating in OTR, got in our cars and had a nice meal farther downtown.) 

Although we were out of luck that night, I’d eaten at Pepp & Dolores a couple of times since they opened in mid-December. Specializing in a variety of housemade pastas, the restaurant is both the most upscale and the most personally meaningful of those owned by brothers Joe and John Lanni under their corporate umbrella, the Thunderdome Restaurant Group.

Thunderdome has been remarkably successful with several of its concepts, including the fast/healthy bowl/burrito chain Currito, superb taqueria Bakersfield and the incredibly popular fried chicken eatery The Eagle. But none of those places come close to the deep family connections manifested at Pepp & Dolores, named after the brothers’ grandparents; Pepp is short for the common Italian name Giuseppe and Dolores is an anglicized version of Addolorata. Pepp and Dolores emigrated from Italy in the middle of the last century, and Joe and John treasure memories of eating bountiful pasta meals at their grandparents’ home.

click to enlarge Clockwise from left to right: A selection of available dishes including fried artichokes, crostini alla caponata, cacio e pepe, housemade ricotta and sourdough and eggplant involtini. - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Clockwise from left to right: A selection of available dishes including fried artichokes, crostini alla caponata, cacio e pepe, housemade ricotta and sourdough and eggplant involtini.

After several years of building their successful restaurant group with partner Alex Blust, the Lanni brothers were ready to go full steam ahead to create a restaurant that pays homage to those memories. They invested in renovating a building at the upper end of the gentrified part of Vine Street, across from the demolished Kroger and now on the edge of yet more development. 

It’s a corner building across from modern diner Sacred Beast, with windows fully lining two street-facing walls that can open when weather permits. The room has a full bar with more than a dozen seats separated by a low wall from the dining room. Downstairs, you’ll find a completely different space — darker and wood-paneled, with a backlit bar and a couple hundred framed family photographs.

I’ve dined in both rooms and at this time of year, I prefer the lower level for its coziness and the intimate feel those photos add. But in either dining or bar area, you’ll have the same menu to choose from and there’s a lot to recommend. 

click to enlarge The downstairs dining room at Pepp & Dolores, lined with framed family photos - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The downstairs dining room at Pepp & Dolores, lined with framed family photos

Pepp & Dolores is basically a pasta house, with no meat or seafood entrées. There are nine pasta dishes, all of which feature noodles made in the restaurant’s own pasta room. With my companions, I’ve tried about half of them, which range from dishes featuring sauces heavy with meat or seafood to light, vegetable-based sauces and those that highlight cheese and cream. Some are a combination of several of those elements.

The plate called Sunday Sauce ($16) seems dearest to the owners’ hearts as it represents the meat-laden, long-simmering tomato-based sauce from their grandparents’ kitchen. It’s incredibly rich and filling with veal and pork meatballs, braised pork shoulder and plenty of parmigiano-reggiano cheese. 

I preferred a couple of the lighter pastas, though, such as the Limone ($14) — spaghetti with Meyer lemon, chili flakes, garlic breadcrumbs and a couple of cheeses. And although I’m not a huge fan of pesto sauces, Pepp & Dolores’s version — served over herb campanelle pasta ($14) — won me over with its delicate balance of flavors that avoided any sharp tang of raw garlic or too much basil.

You shouldn’t just focus on the pastas here, though. Some of the sides are terrific, and I suggest never passing up a chance to enjoy a portion of the eggplant involtini ($10).  The thinnest possible slices of eggplant are rolled up around a bit of ricotta cheese, topped with a simple but flavorful tomato sauce and dusted with garlic breadcrumbs and parmigiano. Three rolls come with each serving, so it’s quite shareable.  

click to enlarge The upstairs dining room - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The upstairs dining room

Two outstanding appetizers delighted my taste buds, as well: marinated cucumbers ($6) and fried artichokes ($8). There are a couple of crostini appetizers, one with mushrooms ($8) and the other featuring caponata, an eggplant-based topping ($7). The bread for the toasts comes from Allez Bakery in OTR, as do two other types of bread you can order as starters or with your pasta. One is called The Dunk ($6), which comes with a bowl of herb-filled vinaigrette topped with grated cheese and rolls to break apart and dip (or dunk). That’s an innovative way to serve bread and it seems to be getting a lot of buzz, although I found the dip a little too vinegary with the wine I was drinking. The other bread option is a serving of housemade ricotta with grilled sourdough ($7). 

The wine service definitely deserves a shout-out. Sommelier Lindsay Furia has put together a satisfying array of mostly Italian wines by the glass (or half glass) or bottle that the staff can help you navigate. The house pours of white and, especially, the house Chianti are outstanding choices that you really don’t have to look beyond.  

Pepp & Dolores does not have dessert, but each check comes with complementary Italian amaretti cookies.  And you can always finish with a bit of housemade limoncello — not a bad way to wrap up a lovely dinner.    

Pepp & Dolores, 1501 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, peppanddolores.com.

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