New Managers Renovate O’Dells Italian Restaurant In Winona
By CASEY MURPHY
When Bruce Piotrowski cooked a hamburger and bean dinner to earn a Boy Scout Merit Badge at age 5, he knew what he wanted to do for a living.
Now, he's using his years of experience in cooking, as well as his work in renovating and rebuilding houses, to transform O'Dells Italian Restaurant.
Piotrowski, 40, of Big Sandy, recently became manager and chef at the small eatery has been in a historic building in downtown Winona for 15 years but has seen a decline in business. He has expanded the restaurant's hours, started offering delivery, added a few of his recipes and is working to renovate the building, inside and out.
"I've been working on building this business back up," he said.
Born in Upstate New York, Piotrowski was made fun of in high school for taking home economics classes, he said. He studied cooking at the Western Montgomery County Career and Technology Center in Limerick, Penn. He went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Rhode Island but quickly got bored and dropped out because he had learned everything they were teaching at the vocational college, he said.
Piotrowski moved to Tennessee and became a kitchen manager for Ruby Tuesdays for more than two years before he started working for the Opryland Hotel's Cascade Restaurant in Nashville. He said that while working in the show room kitchen, where they cooked in front of the patrons, he met "half" of the country stars. While there he also met and married a girl from Texas and moved with her to live in Gun Barrel City in 2000.
Although the marriage didn't work out, he has never left East Texas.
He became a sous chef at the Cedar Creek Country Club until it burned down and he lost his job, he said. He decided to switch careers for a while.
His father, a plumber and a preacher, taught him how to remodel homes, and he used the trade until he became executive chef at the Pinnacle Club in Payne Springs for more than five years. But after that business was sold, he once again was out of a job and started rebuilding and remodeling houses.
While visiting a friend in Big Sandy, he was introduced to Harry Jones III, owner of O'Dells who hired him to become the manager and chef of the Italian eatery.
Lytha Thomas, 27, has been dating Jones and working at O'Dells for about five years. She said Jones opened the restaurant in October 1996 and named it after his grandmother, who inspired him with his love of cooking. She said everything on the menu is Jones' recipes and he cooked there until November.
She said Jones has been trying to work on the restaurant for a long time and is excited about the changes being made. "We're happy with the way things are going," she said.
Ms. Thomas spends most of her time making pizzas but does "any job that needs to be done," such as helping out with waitressing or dishwashing when needed.
O'Dells offers pizzas, pastas, salads and sandwiches. Piotrowski said they serve marina and alfredo sauces, as well as a derosa sauce, which is a combination of the two sauces. A popular sandwich is the Unique Chicken Sandwich, made on homemade sourdough with honey mustard, jalapeos and mozzarella toasted on the bread.
"You might not know us but come and try us" - that's Piotrowski's motto for O'Dells. "If you love Italian food, this is the place to come."
He believes they are the closest to original Italian food around.
O'Dells most popular dish is the angel hair derosa with Italian sausage they make in house, he said.
"Everything we do here is from scratch," he said. "A lot of people say our food does take a little but longer but it's all made from scratch ... it is worth it."
Before Piotrowski started managing the restaurant, it was only open three nights a week for dinner. He said the regular clientele had dropped because customers never knew when it was open. He has changed the schedule to regular hours, made it a set dining room and has started changing the look of the establishment. New awnings have been put up outside, new paint is being applied and a sign with the business' name has been ordered to attract more customers, he said.
The 1927 building has housed a soda fountain shop, drug store and laundromat before Jones took it over and turned it into a restaurant 15 years ago. Originally from Colorado, Jones lives in Winona and turned over running O'Dells to Piotrowski to free him up for other business ventures, Piotrowski said.
After he finishes painting the inside and outside of the building, Piotrowski wants to make the next-door property into extra seating, building a deck so patrons can feel like they're dining outside but are surrounded in glass walls in bad weather. He also plans to plant flowers and do other landscaping to brighten things up and put spotlights outside facing the building. Inside, the concrete floors will be replaced with tile for a new, fresh look, he said.
He said O'Dells is the only main sit-down restaurant in Winona. "We're not high-scaled, but we're medium-scaled is how I consider us."
The restaurant's walls are decorated with paintings for sale by mostly local artists, even one by their food distributor, as well as a woman in New Orleans.
About three weeks ago, O'Dells started making deliveries. They deliver to Big Sandy, up into Starville to U.S. Highway 271 and down to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. He said word about them delivering is getting out slowly.
O'Dells is now BYOB but is working to get its liquor license.