Threepenny Café: More food, more love

Posted on June 2, 2014 by



Photo credit: Linnea White

Merope Pavlides’ earliest cooking memory is of making Greek cookies and baklava with her yiayia. “I come from a family that loves food,” says Pavlides. “Food is love. More food, more love.”

Pavlides and her husband, Peter Emsh, opened Threepenny Café with that idea in mind. “The opportunity to break bread with [others] is central to the human experience,” says Pavlides. “It’s part of why I wanted to open a restaurant.”

Threepenny Café debuted last month on West Main Street, in the 1940s garage and patio space formerly occupied by Bistro Zinc. Its menu, created by chef Eric Nittolo, offers quality, flavorful food with a heavy focus on veggies, proteins, and grains.

“We jokingly refer to it as ‘gourmet peasant food,’” says Pavlides, laughing. “We wanted to create something casual and creative, with fresh, delicious cuisine at an affordable price point.” The most expensive dishes on the menu top out at $19 for an entrée.

Threepenny Café’s menu is small but mighty, offering soups and salads, cheese plates, rustic main dishes and artisan pizzas. The dishes are familiar—salmon, carne asada, tofu, mussels, charcuterie—and locally sourced when possible, but it’s Nittolo’s skill as a chef that makes them special and, as Pavlides says, creative.

tuna with chef

Photo credit: Katerina Diplas

“Our calamari is a dish like you’ve never had before,” says Pavlides, describing the steak cut portion served with fennel sausage, zucchini and an arrabbiata sauce. It’s an unexpected take on calamari, an eclectic departure from the crispy, fried rings that show up on most menus.


Photo credit: Katerina Diplas

Nittolo is a chef with an especially nuanced palate. He tastes layer upon layer of flavor, says Pavlides, and he’s able to add these layers to his cooking.

“He’s a very exciting person to work with,” says Pavlides. “When you eat [his food] and move the food across your palate, you get backbeats and harmonies that surprise you.”


Photo credit: Katerina Diplas

He’s created a set of thin crust pizzas that again, are familiar, but with surprising ingredients and funky tastes. The Italian sausage pizza, for example, is more than red sauce, cheese, and sausage. Nittolo tops a crispy crust with arrabbiata sauce, local sausage, fresh mozzarella cheese, red onion, and fennel pollen. The result is slightly spicy, a little sweet, and ridiculously flavorful.


Photo credit: Linnea White

Nittolo, Pavlides, and Emsh all arrived in Charlottesville by chance. Pavlides and Emsh lived in Madison, Wisconsin, when they were first married; it’s a town similar to Charlottesville, with a great art and food scene. They moved to the Baltimore area to raise their sons, and after their youngest son went to college, they moved to a house on Smith Mountain Lake, intending to travel. Then, their youngest son got very sick, and they spent a lot of time at the UVa Hospital and ended up falling in love with Charlottesville.

In summer 2013, the couple subletted an apartment on West Main Street, in midtown across from the Amktrak station. “It was just like coming home,” says Pavlides. She and Emsh had been thinking about starting a restaurant (Pavlides worked in food service before beginning her career as an educator) when Zinc closed and the space at 420 West Main opened up.

It was around that time that Pavlides and Emsh met Nittolo, a chef who had worked in Michigan and Richmond and was considering leaving Virginia for a new adventure. Their ideas clicked, says Pavlides, “we were just really simpatico.”

They worked quickly, developing the menu, renovating the space and hiring the staff all in less than a year.

Pavlides and Emsh’s son, by the way, is doing much better.


Photo credit: Katerina Diplas

Photo credit: Linnea White

Photo credit: Linnea White


Photo credit: Linnea White

With an affordable and eclectic menu, a solid beverage list of cocktails, local beer (the restaurant partners with Three Notch’d Brewery) and wine, and friendly service, it’s likely that Threepenny will be simpatico with Charlottesville’s food scene. To foster that creative, casual atmosphere Pavlides describes, Threepenny hosts local music nights and “yappy hours,” where patrons can bring their dogs along to enjoy a snack on the patio. Three Notch’d provides the dog biscuits, made from the brewery’s spent grains.

The restaurant also offers a Latin brunch on Saturday and Sunday, featuring eggs benedicto (with chorizo), seafood tacos, sweet sopapillas, and other dishes. It’s a delicious alternative to the typical ham, grits, and biscuits brunch fare.

Pavlides is quick to note that Threepenny’s current menu is just a starting point. Because Nittolo is a curious, exciting chef who bases many of his dishes on available ingredients, this ‘local responsible’ mindset, as he coined it, will allow the restaurant to frequently offers specials and change dishes with the season. Pavlides smiles warmly when she talks about how the restaurant hopes to engage the community’s creative energy through food.

“We want diners to keep coming back, because things will [evolve],” she says. “We want to share food with them! More food, more love.”

Threepenny Cafe, located at 420 West Main Street, is open Tues.-Fri., 5 p.m. to midnight, and Sat. – Sun, 10 a.m. to midnight. 


Photography by Katerina Diplas and Linnea White

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Posted in: food, New to Cville