Chef Chat, Part 1: Paul Petronella of Paulie's Talks Family, Longevity, And Good Coffee

This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. Check back with us tomorrow to read Part 2.

When we talk about neighborhood restaurants around town, Paulie's on Westheimer has been a Montrose staple for years. Celebrating its 15th year in business this year, the casual Italian restaurant offers a menu of pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and classic Italian favorites like ossobuco and lasagna that have cultivated a steady, regular crowd, who visit as much for the comfort of and consistency as much as they do for convenience.

Now, with the recent expansion to include an adjacent wine bar -- Camerata at Paulie's -- there's even more reason to visit frequently. The wildly successful wine bar, a favorite among industry and sommeliers around town, has once again placed Paulie's in the spotlight, and with it, Paulie's owner, namesake, and chef, Paul Petronella, the subject the of this week's Chef Chat.

EOW: Tell me about Paul Petronella.

PP: I come from a large Italian restaurant family. I was a toddler running around the hot line of my uncle's restaurant where Dad worked the line, my aunt was the hostess, and my two uncles were the business partners.

EOW: Was that here in Houston?

PP: It was called D'Amico's.

EOW: You're part of the D'Amico's family?

PP: Nash D'Amico is my cousin. Brina, his daughter, is my age. Brina and I were pretty close as kids.

EOW: So, you grew up in the D'Amico's kitchen in the village?

PP: No, this was way early, in the '80's. Nash D'Amico and my two uncles, Charles and Frank Petronella, owned this full-service Italian restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby. So I've just always been around that kitchen scene. Dad would always come home smelling like the kitchen. Then, my parents opened this place, Paulie's, in 1998.

EOW: Did you have aspirations to go into the family business?

PP: That was the idea. I helped them open. I worked the front, the kitchen -- I did everything that could possibly be done. I was 21 at the time. I was going to Southwest Texas in San Marcos, about 30 minutes outside of Austin. While school was out and I was in town, I worked here. I actually left San Marcos to work here full time for about a year and went to U of H for a semester, but I got burned out living in Houston, going to school inHouston, and working in Houston. So, I went to to San Marcos to finish my degree, then a year and a half later came back to run a Paulie's location that we had in Galveston at the time.

EOW: So, for people who don't know about it, what is Paulie's? For people who don't live around this area [Montrose and River Oaks]?

PP: We're definitely a neighborhood restaurant. We like to keep it that way. We still do the same thing after 15 years. We're not trying to be something that we're not -- which is why I think some restaurants might fail. We're just a neighborhood, casual Italian restaurant that does food fresh and consistent every time.

EOW: Was it always like that?

PP: It was always like that. Some of the things I added was the coffee program, house-made pastas. We changed up some specials. My creative side wanted to change the menu -- every chef wants to put their creativity on a plate, right? This wasn't the concept to do that. We were already successful. For me to come in and change the whole concept and menu, we would alienate everyone who's ever supported us. I'd shoot myself in the foot.

EOW: So, you're at 15 years now. When did you actually take over?

PP: This location, I've been at for four years. We had another location at Holcombe and Kirby, which I was at for two years prior to that.

EOW: And it was also a Paulie's. Is it still there?

PP: No. I sold it and wanted to come back to the original. I wanted to come back to the basics. After college I went into advertising. While I was in that career, my parents were trying to expand -- they wanted to open a bunch of Paulie's around Houston. They got in a little over their heads and were a little overwhelmed, and so I made a decision that I wanted to come back and take it over and put it in the direction I thought that it needed to go. I thought it needed to stay in one location and make this place the best possible that we could. Instead of spreading ourselves thin with multiple locations, let's just all show up here everyday and make it the best possible.

EOW: It's a long process. Did you have an action plan?

PP: Yeah, the action plan was first for me to be in the kitchen every day and night, and watch food go in and out. Although I didn't change the menu per se, I changed the way we did things. Like we had a pork chop on the menu. I chose a different selection of meat and brined it, so now it comes out a lot more flavorful. We didn't change the menu, we just made it better. The ground beef we used, we use better. The bread that we used, we changed companies. Just little things that I thought could make it better without changing who we were. When I changed the coffee, people got so pissed off at me. Because they don't want their place to change. But our coffee was really embarrassing. If people ordered cappuccino or espresso, I would just cringe, right? And so I found David Buehrer [of Greenway Coffee and Blacksmith] and he helped me change all that. I've lost customers because they don't want to wait. They just want black coffee that's been sitting in a hotpot that's burnt.

EOW: So, you don't offer regular brewed coffee?

PP: It's a pour-over, so you have to wait for it, but it's fresh every time. I just decided that's how we're doing it. People yelled at me through the kitchen, like, "You're stupid, what are you doing, you're going to fail." And they never came back. That's the blowback I got for some of the changes. There's some specials on the menu, if I ever tried to take them off, I'd probably get hate mail.

EOW: Like what?

PP: Like the ossobuco, meatloaf, eggplant parmigiana, and lasagna. They're so simple and homey that people just love it. I mean, we serve ossobuco 365 days a year, which is this hot braised meat that's hearty and great for winter, but in June, July and August, we sell out.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Paul Petronella.

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