Paulie O’Connor (copy)

Chef-owner Paulie O’Connor has used the COVID-19 lockdown to reinvent his Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse — sort of. Rebranded Paulie’s Alta Cucina, it still serves prime cuts of beef, but also blends in traditional Italian flavors of his lineage as well as a psycho-Western cantina vibe that is all Paulie.

The “Not Your Grandma’s Meatballs” at Paulie’s Alta Cucina may not be your grandmother’s recipe, but it is based on a recipe from Paulie O’Connor’s Italian nonna.

“I was in the kitchen making meatballs with my grandmother from when I was super young,” O’Connor said.

Of course, at Paulie’s the classic meatballs come with a fine dining accompaniment of fresh burrata, San Marzano tomatoes, basil and a 460° Bread baguette.

The meatballs are representative of the three cuisines O’Connor has attempted to merge since he took over as head chef and owner of The Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse in 2015: premium cuts and cures of meat, Old World Italian cooking and fine dining.

When the Steakhouse shut down in March, O’Connor took advantage of idle time to work on a project that he has had in mind for the past five years: rebranding the establishment with a name and menu that felt more authentic to his vision for the restaurant.

“I’ve been trying to change the name since I got here,” O’Connor said.

After negotiations with the restaurant’s landlords, Silver Dollar Inc., the eatery reopened in early June as Paulie’s Alta Cucina.

“Some of it is the same,” O’Connor said. “We’re still in the same space, we’re still serving wild game burgers. We added some Italian flair in.”

The Million Dollar Cowboy brand carries with it some value, but Paulie O’Connor’s name is just as well known to many people here. After becoming locally famous for his signature lasagna at the Old Yellowstone Garage during the early aughts, O’Connor worked as chef at myriad other restaurants.

He is a self-proclaimed workaholic and, until last year, was doing triple duty as the owner and head chef at both the Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse and a reboot of the Old Yellowstone Garage in Alpine, as well as the executive chef for Caldera House.

Although he isn’t pulling 100-hour weeks anymore, he is finding ways to work almost as hard.

“If I’m not working I’m pretty much just pacing around my house,” O’Connor said.

As a result, O’Connor lives a mostly subterranean existence, dwelling in the basement of The Cowboy Bar from mid-morning to late at night most days. In the morning he works on handmade mozzarella, butchers wild game, beef, pork and poultry, and preps dough for pasta and bread. In the early evening he is hard at work in the kitchen orchestrating complex dishes for the dinner crowd. Late at night, Paulie’s takes on the atmosphere of a psychedelic Western speakeasy: Appetizers hit the fryers and O’Connor emerges from the kitchen to spin Jedi Mind Tricks, Thievery Corporation and Afrobeat from the host table — or at least he will once the late-night scene comes back to Jackson.

The restaurant’s new name doesn’t come with an overhaul of the menu or decor. Instead it is a reflection of what Paulie’s has already become. Even the walls of the restaurant are decorated with flair that is uniquely Paulie O’Connor. One painting is a graphic illustration of a sign on a brick wall that reads “Troy, NY,” O’Connor’s hometown. Elsewhere hangs pop culture icons and bumper sticker-style foodie advice. Late-night specials and music are meant to bring in a service industry crowd for an after-work hang.

In addition to premium steaks and gourmet entrees, Paulie’s also has options for the local working-class crowd. From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. every day you can get a chicken parm or a burger with a PBR for $10. I stopped in last week to grab a slice of pepperoni pizza ($5). Although it is one of the least expensive items on the menu, the pizza is made with the same care and attention to detail that characterizes all of the food at Paulie’s. Served on a buttery focaccia style dough that takes O’Connor more than a day to prep, the pizza is topped with fresh tomato, whole milk mozzarella and Calabrese salumi. The ingredients are simple, but the outcome is incredible. 

Contact Gabe Allen via 732-7078 or entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com.

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