Cal Pep is a name you’ll find across Barcelona, but it takes on a different meaning depending on which neighborhood you’re in.
In Gràcia, the name Cal Pep is synonymous with an old bar-bodega, dedicated almost entirely to the business of drinking (Carrer de Verdi, 141). The Cal Pep in Born is a famous seafood restaurant (Plaça de les Olles, 8), with lines snaking out the door.
In Sants, Cal Pep is affixed to a charismatic bodegueta (small bodega). Narrow, long and dimly lit, this particular Cal Pep has the atmosphere of a wine temple – including wooden casks and a vintage fridge – that has been frozen in time, with most of the original decorations from 1927 still intact.
The food, however, is anything but dated. Without straying from the bodega canon, owner Angel Congostrina has created a range of simple yet excellent dishes. With a focus on high-quality conservas, the bodegueta’s offerings are simple and served following the tapeo modus operandi: small portions to share with a drink.
In 2004, Angel left his job as a magazine publisher – he was tired of the office stress – to manage Bodegueta Cal Pep, a place that combined all of his passions: food, wine and the old historic bodegas of the city. “My whole life I’ve loved food, and I like to be creative with it,” he tells us. “But I also love vintage bodegas. Here I touched almost nothing, maybe four little things and, of course, I changed the tapas.”
As one of the last old-school bodegas standing in Barcelona today, Bodegueta Cal Pep is a prized treasure.
When Angel took over, the bodegueta had already cycled through at least three owners (and maybe more, as the multiple changing of hands has made it difficult to piece together a precise history). Each owner gave his own name to the place, starting with Mauri, then Ramón and finally Josep (Pep); Angel is the first to keep the previous name.
What we do know is that until Pep took over, this was mainly a bulk wine store (sodas and ice were added to the offerings in the second half of the 20th century). As one of the last old-school bodegas standing in Barcelona today, Bodegueta Cal Pep is a prized treasure. But Angel explains to us that back in the city’s bodega heyday, it was only one of many. “On this street there used to be several bodegas, and even more on the next one,” he says. “Now almost all of them are gone or have been transformed into something else.”
Pep was the first owner to offer conservas and snacks, but when Angel took over the menu became infinitely more interesting. During the week, Cal Pep still sells wine in bulk and serves as a refuge for people living nearby. But on the weekends, customers come from all over the city to enjoy a proper vermut or wine from Angel’s selection of bottles – mostly Catalan with some Spanish options – and, of course, some of his outstanding tapas de mercado, so-called because he sources almost everything from the nearby Sants Market.
We love Angel’s precise takes on traditional recipes, like his grilled fresh “beach” squid, so-called because it’s caught close to the shore and quickly ferried to market. The small pieces of squid are prepared simply, with only garlic, parsley, olive oil and a touch of salt, and then grilled to perfection.
Some other classics from the menu (written in blue pen on a piece of paper) include the cod fritters; the bomba, a mass of mashed potatoes and bread crumbs, with a bit of meat hidden in the very middle, coated in batter, fried and served with a spicy sauce; the powerful callos, beef tripe stew with spices; and the pork snout.
Truly remarkable, though, are the “super cans” of high-quality canned Galician seafood. We like the clams, scallops, cockles and very delicate sardines in olive oil, but on special occasions will order the exceptional beluga and sea urchin caviar.
Walking into these old bodegas is like stepping into a small chamber of Barcelona’s heart, one filled with wine, fish and casual friendship. These things never seem to change, no matter the bodega’s name.