It sounds like every foodie book lover’s dream with the smells of an authentic Italian restaurant wafting through the entrance of an independent bookstore where a table is waiting for two. Well, now it’s a reality. At 54 Fairfield Street in Montclair, da Pepo provides new lunch and dinner specials daily that cater to every kind of Italian craving while Watchung Booksellers sits at the same address through an entryway that features the best selection of books. While both establishments operate at the same time during the day, the bookstore allows additional seating for the restaurant on its floor in the evenings. Keep reading for a review of the summer dinner menu at da Pepo.
Please note, da Pepo will be closed from August 19th to August 26th, and will reopen on August 28th.
Independent bookstores are the cornerstone of every bookworm’s heart, and this one looks like it has come right out of a romantic-comedy fever dream. Wooden shelves grace the entirety of the store and are divided up by black-and-white street signs depicting each genre. There’s even a reading nook in the back of the room where storytimes for children take place. Watchung Booksellers is open from 10AM-7PM Monday through Friday and 10AM-5PM on weekends. Watchung also has another, newly opened location, The Kid’s Room, that houses their children’s books and merchandise and hosts over 300 author visits and events for all ages down the road at 44 Fairfield Street.
Margot Sage-EL is the current owner of the independent bookstore and said she loves the collaboration with da Pepo regarding seating arrangements. While there are only one or two tables set up in the front of the store currently, the entire bookstore can be filled with da Pepo customers come wintertime when outdoor seating isn’t feasible.
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Watchung Booksellers originated in 1991 by Kathy Linsk and sat above changing businesses at 33 Watchung Plaza. As the downstairs businesses kept changing, the bookstore moved over to its current address in 2001 where different kinds of businesses sat next door. In 2014, bookstore management decided to open a wall into what was Tiny Elephant Cafe, where customers can sip a latte while immediately browsing through bookshelves three steps away. Now, patrons at da Pepo can pair a savory pasta dish with a little bit of local browsing without worrying about finding another parking spot.
Upon walking into the restaurant, seven tables are splayed out in the small restaurant as Billie Holiday is playing through the speakers. It is a small modern-styled restaurant where specials are written out on a chalkboard and a pastry case separates patrons from the waitstaff. The five-year-old restaurant easily blends into Watchung Booksellers immediately to the right. A party of four dined in the front of the bookstore by the entrance as smells of parmesan cheese and wooden bookcases sat in the air.
Chef Carlo Orrico opened da Pepo at its current address in 2018 and named it after his father, Pasquale Orrico, who grew up in southern Italy. He takes pride in his family roots and promises to use the cooking methods he learned in the household in every dish he prepares at da Pepo. It is also worth mentioning that the restaurant is closed on Sundays because, as Orrico puts it, “Sundays are for family.” (quoted from the website). The restaurant is open from 12PM-3:30PM then 5PM-8:30PM Monday through Saturday.
Photo Credit: David Pelle
Outdoor seating for a small dinner party is perfect in the right kind of weather. Classic Italian delicacies like Spaghetti Carbonara and Mozzarella in Carozza sit side-by-side with new dishes of Orrico’s delicious creations such as Rigatoni Alla Zozzona and Panko Crispy Fried Zucchini Blossoms (pictured below). The restaurant is known for its bruschetta specials that change daily but the unique dining experience of sitting in a bookstore or accompanying by the train whistle by the Watchung Avenue train station will leave diners wanting to come back for seconds… or a sequel, if we’re talking in book terms.