Teamwork, Delicious Food Create Spezia's Recipe for SuccessSep 29, 2022 04:36PM ● By Tim Trudell
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
As a teenager, Brian Reilly found himself preferring to be in the kitchen rather than a classroom. Growing up in rural northwest Missouri, in towns such as Hopkins and Pickering, Reilly appreciated the opportunity to spend half-days in school and half at local eateries during his final year of high school. An athlete who loved playing basketball, Reilly didn’t see being a college player in his future. But, he did think he could make a career being a cook. About 20 years after high school, not only is he a chef at a major restaurant, but he’s also co-owner of Spezia Italian Restaurant.
Had it not been for his father, perhaps Reilly would have taken a different path. It was the elder Reilly who suggested the duo hop in their pickup and head north to Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs to check out its culinary program. Reilly enrolled and was a student when he passed by Spezia one day, shortly after it had opened. Pulling into the parking lot off 72nd Street, Reilly decided to stop in and fill out an application (back in the day when paper applications were the norm).
A few weeks later, after not hearing from the restaurant’s management, he decided to stop in and check on a job in person. Josh Krivanek, then the kitchen manager, met with Reilly. There was something about Reilly that convinced him he should hire the young man, Krivanek said.
“I said to one of the other managers ‘that kid is back here. Let’s give him a try on the salad station,’” he said.
Within a few months, Reilly had worked his way on to other key stations, including pasta and prep, Krivanek said.
After graduating culinary school in 2005, Reilly was offered an opportunity to open a new restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Spezia’s owners, based in Sioux Falls, decided to open Bracco World Cafe, a 500-seat restaurant. Reilly was named the restaurant’s manager.
His time in Sioux Falls was memorable for more than opening an upscale Italian restaurant.
“When they offered me the position, I was like ‘I’m young. I’m not in a relationship, so why not? I’ll give Sioux Falls a try,’” he said. “It’s way cold. I couldn’t take it. I’d work until 11 and come outside and the windows were frosted over. I grew up in northwest Missouri, a couple hours south of Omaha, and I thought the climate changed a little between the two. Summers seem shorter. But, when I went to Sioux Falls, it was warm for a couple of weeks, and then it turned cold. The wind cut right through me.”
After a year there, he learned the chef at Spezia had left, so he requested to move back to Omaha and take over the kitchen. He’s been in Omaha ever since.
Besides gaining the experience of running his own restaurant, Reilly returned to Omaha with a significant other.
“My wife (Elizabeth), I actually hired her at Bracco,” Reilly said. “She used to tease me around the kitchen and stuff. And we got to kind of liking each other. When I returned here, she stayed there. We did the long distance thing for a while.”
The couple married, and now she takes care of their two children, a 9-year-old daughter and a son who’s 4.
“You know, she’s such a big part of what I get to do here, giving me the opportunity to do what I do,” Reilly said. “She does so much, basically raising the kids on her own, since I am gone so much, putting in 50 to 55 hours a week.”
As executive chef, Reilly controls Spezia’s menu, creating dishes for a wood-fire oven. Being that most longtime diners don’t want to see many changes made, Reilly may tinker here and there, but, for the most part, the menu remains constant–Italian, seafood, and steaks.
While grilled salmon ranks among his favorite dishes, Reilly also enjoys creating pasta entrees, with Seafood Diavolo among his top picks. Preparing the dish, the chef uses shrimp, scallops, and mussels in a tomato sauce, adding roasted garlic, lemon, and parsley over a bed of capellini pasta.
For Shannon Hall, it’s the Salmon Ala Rosa that’s kept her coming back for more than 10 years. The entrée features a fresh Scottish salmon with fresh basil and tomato crème rosa sauce tossed with farfalle (butterfly pasta).
“It’s super simple, but the salmon is amazing there,” Hall said. “The Gnocchi Alla Pollo is another great dish. With chicken and mushroom, it’s delicious. All the flatbreads are great.”
Hall’s decade-long love affair with Spezia started over happy hour drinks with friend and co-worker Gina Rubek. The pair work at Corporate Travel Management, formerly known as Travel and Transport, a few blocks north of Spezia.
“So, we just started going there, and you know we’re sitting at the bar. We wouldn’t sit in the restaurant side,” Hall said. “Everyone was so nice. And, after we started going every other week, they knew what drink to make us; they didn’t need to ask. It just felt like you were at home with a bunch of friends. The atmosphere for me, alone, did it.”
As one of the owners decided to move on to new projects, including opening another Bracco location in Okoboji, Iowa, Reilly bought his portion of the restaurant company. He is now a partner with Dave Thompson, who lives in Sioux Falls.
In a bit of an ironic move, Reilly hired Krivanek to run the kitchen about 15 years after he had given Reilly his start at Spezia. Working as part of a clean-up crew during the changeover from the former La Strada 72 to Spezia in 2003, Krivanek applied for a position with the new restaurant. In less than a year, he was running the kitchen at the age of 22.
“I had a kid and needed a good job,” Krivanek said.
After hiring Reilly, Krivanek worked at Spezia for about a year-and-a-half before moving to Florida for a few years. Krivanek spent most of his 14 years away in construction.
While talking with a friend about looking for a weekend job for extra income, Krivanek learned Reilly was now Spezia’s co-owner and executive chef. After meeting with Reilly, the man he had hired years ago now offered him the kitchen manager’s position.
“That was four years ago,” Krivanek said. “My job is to make his job easier.”
Having been out of the restaurant industry for such a long time didn’t deter him from taking the job, Krivanek said. The father of five children, Krivanek took to the kitchen operation like a fish to water. It was like he’d never left.
The craziness that comes with kitchen work drives Krivanek.
“The only thing you can guarantee is that you can’t guarantee anything,” he joked.
For Reilly, Krivanek is the right hand he’s needed to make the restaurant continue to operate on all cylinders.
Teamwork became important during the early days of the COVID pandemic, Reilly said.
“We knew it was coming. You saw it on the news,” he said. “Within three days, we went from flying high with a full house to nothing.”
Shut down for two months, he had to furlough staff. Unable to even pay himself, Reilly sought to stay busy and find ways for the restaurant to reopen as quickly as possible. The staff worked on developing a takeout menu. Reilly redesigned the regular menu.
Once Spezia reopened, diners returned. They missed in-person dining, Reilly said. The restaurant practiced safe-distance procedures, keeping tables at about six feet apart; this limited occupancy, but provided a safer dining experience.
Reducing hours of operation over the past two years, such as closing an hour earlier each night, doesn’t seem to have impacted business, Reilly said. However, having a limited staff has been challenging.
“I have a handful of people who are potentially, though they’re not salaried, getting overtime wages,” Reilly said. “It’s taxing on them [...] But, they seem to be happy to do it. They’re working a lot, and the extra money is good for them and their families. Is it going to last forever? We’ll see. But, I try to take care of them.”
Visit speziarestaurant.com for more information
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.