Paulie’s in Montrose has been a Houston neighborhood staple for years. With its homemade pastas, reasonable prices and friendly counter service, Paul Petronella’s namesake restaurant is beloved among Houstonians. This April, the restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary with a party and the release, in January, of Petronella’s book, “Paulie's: Classic Italian Cooking in the Heart of Houston's Montrose District.”
Petronella has been running the restaurant since 2009, when he took it over from his parents. In 2013, he opened Camerata, a wine bar adjacent to the restaurant. He took some time to chat with us about the book, Paulie’s and where he likes to eat and drink in Houston.
What led you to want to write a book about your family history and recipes? I understand it's not a cookbook per se, but more like a memoir with recipes.
It's a story book that has recipes kind of sprinkled in as you read through the story. Paulie's is 20 years old this year in April, so I wanted to do something substantial to celebrate that. It's difficult to stay relevant in the restaurant business. It's easy to be exciting when you're new and fresh, but it's just a staple I want to introduce to the city and make sure that we're still around for a couple more years. I thought a book that had a story of how we started, some of our family history and some of our recipes would be a good way to do that.
Being open for 20 years isn't an easy feat in the restaurant business. What do you attribute that success to?
For us personally, it took two generations. My parents had been in the restaurant business. It's all I really knew. Neither one of them had formal educations, they grew up working at family restaurants...so they just accumulated all their experiences. By the time they got to open Paulie's, they were well into their forties, fast forward 10, 11 years later, now they're in their fifties and they're tired. You know, I was in my early thirties. I'm really getting into career mode wanting to make a name for myself somehow and I thought this would be a good opportunity to let them lay back and retire and then see what I could do to the business.
Aside from that, is there anything particular – your staff or the way you run business that you think has helped you stay?
Definitely our staff. We still have people who have been here for 15 plus years. One woman, Maria, specifically was with my stepmother before we opened Paulie's, so she's been here really longer than I have. The staff in our kitchen has very minimal turnover. We've created a family back there, and so that's what really helps keep our food consistent, you know, really the same people doing it all the time. We have a guest who's been coming for 20 years, so we've been lucky to have a really loyal customer base and I think they're happy to see the same employees in our restaurant. That means we must be doing something right.
You wrote in your book that even though you grew up in restaurants, you never really saw it as a career path for you. What made you change your mind?
Well, it was kind of twofold. It was time for my parents to retire. They were trying to open more locations and it was more work than they thought – it was just crushing them. So I was happy to come back and let them retire and it offered me an opportunity to find a place for my own voice. But I think that when I started working with the kitchen, that's what I enjoyed and I liked it. I knew basic Italian cooking from just growing up in my family's kitchen, my grandmother's kitchen, but working on the line in this kitchen will make a warrior out of anyone. It’s so small and we just pump out so much food in this tiny little area and you have to be extremely efficient. I got my butt kicked everyday - we all did, but at the end of the day it was like, man, we owned it. That was a really great feeling.
How would you describe Paulie's to somebody who hasn't dined there?
I'm really big into under promising and over delivering so I don't really hype up our restaurant. I describe it exactly how it is, and that's a counter service, Italian family restaurant. When you come in with mediocre expectations and then dine and realize that it's really great food and really great service, that everything's made to order, that there's even a great coffee program, and there's desserts that you have to have when you leave ... I'd rather people have kind of that feeling as they leave, as opposed to maybe ‘you have to check out Paulie's, it's been around for 20 years, they do amazing food and they come in like, it's counter service.’ So I kind of lay low when I describe it, hoping that you'll leave with higher expectations than you came in with.
Where would you take someone visiting Houston for good food and drink?
I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. David Buehrer is one of my really good friends and he's continuously opening more coffee shops around town and a couple of them have kitchens. Blacksmith is a great place to have coffee and also get something to eat. I would take them to Coral Sword, David [Buehrer]’s new coffee-slash-gaming shop. There's board games and video games galore all through this place and people are just showing up to play board games, which is kind of refreshing to me since everything is so electronic and instant gratification that board games are still a thing. They serve Greenway-quality coffee and pizza and other foods. For a nice dinner, I would take them to Justin Yu’s Theodore Rex. For cocktails, I think Anvil has been the standard for as long as I've been on Westheimer.
Thank you so much, Paul!
Want to try one of Petronella’s recipes at home? Check out his recipe for Cuccidati Cookies.