Life has returned to 98 W. Clay Ave. in downtown Muskegon.
On a lot that previously sat empty for close to 25 years, in shipping containers that, less than one year ago, called a scrapyard home, Nipote’s Italian Kitchen has been born. And, now, it is a space filled with color and light—a bright yellow exterior giving way to a dining room filled with a whirlwind of laughter and wine and food and people raising their glasses to family, to friends, to community.
Nipote’s, which celebrated its soft opening last weekend and which will make its official debut on Tuesday, July 23 at 11am, is a culinary landscape reminiscent of its owners, Jeff and Shawn Church, both of whom grew up in Muskegon and are now raising their four children here. This restaurant, tucked between The Cheese Lady and Morat’s and the newly-opened Redmon’s Kitchen & Bar, is an intimate space rooted in warmth, in embracing everyone in our city (and beyond), in the power of food to connect us all.
And it’s much like the city to which the Churches have long dedicated themselves, Muskegon: Nipote’s is a place of both newness and rebirth, an Italian restaurant operating in a rapidly expanding downtown on a lot that was once an auto shop, in two shipping containers that previously were part of the 24 million abandoned crates sitting empty in our country. It’s a place of history, of stories yet to be told, of dreams currently coming true.
“We’re so grateful; so many people have been so supportive of us on this journey that it’s hard not to get overwhelmed,” Shawn said Sunday afternoon while sitting with her husband at Pigeon Hill—a business that’s also growing downtown and has been a big supporter of Nipote’s. “We’re so blessed to be supported by our community.”
That community came out in droves to mark Nipote’s soft opening; everyone from the owners of nearby businesses to construction workers who helped build the space and family members of the team employed at the restaurant packed the venue.
There, they got the chance to catch the first glimpse of a menu revolving around authentic Italian and American-inspired dishes that are chock full of handmade pastas and locally-sourced ingredients. Think: eggplant rollatini, garlic shrimp and bruschetta for appetizers; paninis; and such pasta dishes as cacio e pepe (spaghetti with pecorino romano and fresh cracked pepper), mushroom ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs, and rigatoni bolognese. Main courses range from chicken parmesan and Mediterranean salmon to frico (crispy potato, cheese and onion pie served with radicchio salad) and chicken cacciatore (roasted chicken thighs with peppers and olives in a red wine and tomato sauce and served with polenta).
Eventually, Nipote’s hopes to offer what they’re calling a “two-block” menu, or dishes that entirely boast ingredients coming from a two-block radius: cheese from The Cheese Lady, vegetables from the Muskegon Farmers’ Market, goods from Morat’s Bakery, and more. Currently, many of the dishes they sell are already heavily rooted in local: for example, they offer cannoli from The Only Cannoli and much of their produce is coming from Creswick Farms and Tortoise & Hare Farm.
“Whenever we can, our lens has been what we call ‘mittens or boots’: we get it in West Michigan or Michigan in general,” Shawn said.
All of this food is being served in a space that seats 50 people inside and 24 people on the outdoor patio. The Churches worked with a shipping container company out of Detroit, Three Squared, to create their building. Nipote’s is one of a growing number of eateries around the world built from refashioned shipping containers—including ones in Paris, London, Toronto, Miami, Sacramento, and, closer to home, Detroit.
“It’s such a neat thing to reuse, refurbish, rebuild,” Shawn said. “There are so many unused shipping containers; we get so many things imported and so little exported, so the containers just sit.”
The containers themselves are part of one of the major driving forces behind Nipote’s: sustainability. They compost and recycle—after 90-some people dined there on Saturday night, they had just one bag of garbage because of what they were able to compost and recycle. Currently, the Churches are on the lookout for other restaurants who may be interested in commercial composting; if enough venues sign up for it, the operation could launch in the city.
The space too takes after the intimate eateries—and the fresh food—the Churches fell head-over-heels for while traveling around Italy.
When deciding what kind of restaurant to open, the husband-and-wife duo—both of whom have spent their entire professional careers in the culinary world—easily decided upon an Italian venture. The two have long been inspired by the cuisine; they spent a month spent traveling in Italy for their honeymoon, and about six years ago they befriended an Italian couple who now live in Muskegon and were a big source of inspiration for opening the venue—and for the name, Nipote’s. Carlo Pozzobon and Sofia Occhialini left their home in Italy for Muskegon for Pozzobon’s work in the tile industry, and the two met the Churches through Run Muskegon, an athletic organization that meets twice a week for runs throughout the city. Pozzobon and Occhialini, who owns The Italian Spoon in Muskegon, have affectionately deemed Jeff as their “nipote,” the Italian word for nephew, and Shawn and Jeff even got to visit Pozzobon’s and Occhialini’s hometown, Udine—a city located in northeast Italy, about 80 miles north of Venice.
“We fell in love with Italy, with the countryside there and the fresh food that we just don’t have here,” Jeff said. “That really stuck with us.”
With $5 soups, $10 paninis, and pastas ranging from $10 to $14, Nipote’s too hopes to be a place where all feel welcome—and where everyone can afford to eat.
“We want people from this community to come into Nipote’s,” Shawn said. “We want people to feel comfortable and homey when you come in…I don’t want someone to walk into our restaurant and not have access to our food.”
Jeff also emphasized this.
“When you’re here, it feels like sitting in my living or dining room,” he said. “We want it to be like you’re at somebody’s dinner party, but the party is for everyone. This is what we’ve always wanted to do: feed the people.”
All of this—the food, the love for our city, the desire to empower the people both within and outside of Nipote’s walls—adds up to a story about what it means to give a community wings. What it means to take a chance, to have faith in the people around you, to build a world where we can put our phones down, break bread, and raise a glass to new and old friends alike.
“If we can eat and drink and laugh together, that’s what we want,” Jeff said.
Nipote’s Italian Kitchen is located at 98 W. Clay Ave. and will open to the public on Tuesday, July 23 at 11am. Its normal business hours will be 11am-9pm Tuesdays through Thursdays and 11am-11pm Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant will be closed on Sundays and Mondays. For more information, visit their website, read Shawn’s blog, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photos by Anna Gustafson; photos of the Nipote’s team during training courtesy of Shawn and Jeff Church.