Chef Chat, Part 2: Paul Petronella Tells the Story of How Camerata Wine Bar Came Into Being
Paul Petronella contemplates wine at Camerata.
Photo by Mai Pham
This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
In Part One of this week's Chef Chat, Paul Petronella of Paulie's and Camerata told the story of growing up in an Italian-American restaurant family and what it was like to take over the family business and try to implement change. Since assuming leadership at Paulie's, Petronella has been instrumental in supporting young chefs by hosting pop-up events at the restaurant. In addition, he is part-owner of OKRA Charity bar, a not-for-profit that donates to charities in the Houston area. Petronella created the menu for the bar, picking up the slack on days when they are short-staffed. And somehow, in the midst of all this, he found the time to conceptualize and open Camerata, the focus of our conversation today.
EOW: Let's go back to you being a chef and being creative. Was there a formal education, or was it just growing up in the business?
PP: Just growing up in the business. I took a short trip to Italy for three weeks right when I came back to the restaurant. I tried to work where I could, but a lot of people didn't really want a white kid in their kitchens. I just ate a lot -- saw what was different from the Northern regions to the Southern regions to Sicily. Found out what I wanted to do -- found out really what I thought I could bring back and translate. Because if you opened a truly authentic neighborhood restaurant that you'd find in Venice or Tuscany, honestly, I don't think it would succeed here, because it's so simple. It's just like fresh pasta, maybe one herb and maybe a protein, and I think most Americans would be disappointed about how little was on that plate.
EOW:So you came back and took over Paulie's. Let's talk about Camerata. That was a good move.
PP: I tell you it was the best thing I've ever done, actually. The second best thing was changing the coffee program [chuckles]. First thing was opening Camerata.
EOW: How long was this project in the making?
PP: Two months.
EOW: Are you kidding? How did it come about?
PP: The space has always been this boutique -- clothes, jewelry -- called Silversmith. She'd been open almost as long as we have. Then about a year ago, she left. So this space has been vacant for several months. The landlord kept pushing me to take it and expand, but I knew that I didn't want to expand Paulie's.
PP: Because our kitchen couldn't keep up with an extra 1,500 square feet. We have difficulty now keeping up with our dinners. People are waiting 30 minutes, and we only have that small dining room.
EOW: How many covers are you doing?
PP: A day, we're probably seeing 500 to 600 people -- that's lunch through dinner, but it's a lot of people. And that kitchen is small and we do our best, but at this point, it is what it is. So I didn't want to expand, because our wait time is already 30 minutes at peak times, so if we added all this additional seating, the kitchen would get crushed.
The Nonna pizza at Paulie's -- part of the reason the place gets so busy.
Photo by Mai Pham
EOW: How many dishes do you have on the menu?
PP: Total? A lot. We have a huge menu. I've been looking at the menu for four years and going, "What can I take off?" And I have taken some stuff off. Because to me, the smaller the menu, as an operator, I love small menus, it makes it easy on everyone. But I look at the menu, and I see people's faces who come in and order only that, so like, if I took that off, I would lose them. So we just keep it on.
EOW: So this led to Camerata...
PP: Well, I knew I didn't want to expand Paulie's. But I wanted to do something else. I actually thought about doing an Italian market several years ago, a retail store, extremely authentic, everything shipped from Europe. I started doing the numbers, and I didn't think it would work. So a wine bar made sense.
EOW: How did the wine bar idea come about?
PP: It came about because I thought we needed a night business, because during the day, there is no parking. So what could we do at night? A bar. But we have a beer and wine license only because we're across the street from a school.
EOW: Wow! That's so fortuitous.
PP: I didn't really want mixed drinks anyway, because it brings in a different crowd. So actually, I was playing with the idea for a year. I talked to a few well-known sommeliers around town about what they wanted to do. A couple of them were on board, a couple were not. The ones that were on board were great, but in the end they didn't have what I was looking for.
EOW: What were you looking for?
PP: Responsibility. Someone educated, a great leader. Someone that I could trust to run a business by themselves, and educate people. And then Justin Vann suggested David Keck. Keck and I have always been friends, and this is what's weird to me, because I never thought to ask him, and he turned out to be the most perfect candidate. In the entire city, David Keck is the most perfect candidate for this. So David and I talked, and we just started hitting everything on the head. Everything we talked about was exactly what we thought we wanted in a business and a wine bar. It's like a first date that goes really really well, and you're like, "I can't believe this is happening." So we talked numbers and logistics, and we agreed -- the idea of being conservative, and not being greedy, and being educational, and not gouging anyone -- we just really want to be a hub of education and wine. Kind of like what I turned Paulie's into by opening my kitchen to young chefs for these pop-ups.
EOW: How did those pop-ups start?
PP: I think because I wasn't getting my creativity out of the Paulie's menu, by opening our doors on Sundays and letting these young chefs come in and do their thing, it fulfilled something in me that was missing.
EOW: Who have you had go through there?
PP: Randy Rucker has been there a few times. Justin Yu, Willet and Seth did a 10-10-10 dinner. We've done some Moneycat brunches and dinners. Ned Elliot from Foreign and Domestic in Austin has done dinners. Michael Gaspard has been in, Felipe Riccio, Justin Basye, Chris Leung. It's just fun to give those guys an avenue to do what they want. So that just makes me happy. And that was the same thought process with Camerata. This is becoming this huge think tank with wine people in the world. We're changing what wines are coming into this state, talking to our vendors, so that we can bring wines that we want into this city. In fact, David has been instrumental in founding the new Houston Sommelier Association. They have meetings every Wednesday and Friday morning at Camerata. Wednesdays are open to everyone, while Fridays are for more advanced sommeliers. They are tasting wines, discussing wines, learning theory, bringing in winemakers. We've even started building a wine library here, with reference books for anyone who wants to learn.
EOW: As I understand it, the name "Camerata" also speaks to this idea of learning, doesn't it?
PP: Yes, it does. David actually came up with the name Camerata. We talked about what we wanted the name to represent, which was think tank, community, Italian and integrity. David came back with Camerata and the history of it, and it was perfect. The Florentine Camerata incubated some of the greatest art and music in Italian history, most importantly opera. Which is close to David's heart, being an opera singer himself. I loved it because Camerata is our little wine room that has and hopefully will continue to house great decisions, progressive and forward thinking towards the wine industry in Texas.