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Family Feast

At Mandola's Family Table, small portions aren't on the menu

A similar garlicky slick underlay a first course of spiedini, grilled veal-and-salami rolls oozing with cheese. Too salty. Too rich. Too oily, a condition in which I might have taken some guilty pleasure had there been a suitable sopping instrument at hand. No such luck: the breadbasket contained humdrum breadsticks, stale French bread and focaccia smeared with tomato paste. With all the serious loaves being baked in this town, surely the Mandola crew could do better.

And the bustling waiters -- who must have a clause in their training manual directing them to fling their neckties back over their shoulder at every opportunity -- could pay a bit more attention to details. Like whether there's any cutlery with which to eat the spiedini in question. "He's rolling 'em right now!" announced one of these chipper lads when we begged for silverware. Such are the times: in due course utensils were deposited on our table, wrapped in the napkin straitjackets that have become synonymous with casual dining.

The wonder is that anyone can contemplate dessert here, but people do, and they wind up with mountains of engagingly homey, bittersweet chocolate layer cake, or a soaring pyramid of the tennis-ball-sized Italian beignets called sfingi. There's an elusive bitterness to these spheres of fried dough -- brandy in the batter, perhaps? -- but a dredging in powdered sugar offsets it, and the effect is gratifyingly lowbrow, like something you might eat on a carnival midway. Some waiters will take pity and bring you an individual, "lunch-size" slice of bread pudding instead of the whole skyscraper; it's moist and comfortingly retro, but the bourbon sauce that cloaks it bears an unfortunate resemblance to beige mucilage. And of the cannoli -- stale of shell, sourly off-tasting of filling -- the less said, the better.

It's hard to get too grouchy in a place like this, though. That grab bag of vintage chandeliers sheds such a pretty light; those innumerable Mandola and Laurenzo family photographs generate such a nostalgic, sepia-tinted glow. The whole big, high-ceilinged room emanates that false patina of age that Houstonians have of necessity learned to do so well: the dark wood wainscoting, the ivoried walls, the stately ceiling, the gleaming, old-fashioned bar.

Inside, on foursquare slat-back chairs, sits modern Houston feeling indisputably communal over their shared platters. Westside suburbanites radiate health and disposable income. Multigenerational Asian groups wear the relaxed air of people who are used to dining this way. Marooned-looking couples deliberate over the list of half-orders meant to broaden the restaurant's appeal. An elderly pair faces the same direction, the only dour countenances in the room, he wearing suspenders he probably wishes he could loosen. One peers in vain at mismatched groups, trying to discern the relationships: is that person there the mother of that other person? Is the biker-looking guy the Worthless Brother?

Across half the rear wall sprawls an animated Irish family that could have been recruited by the photo stylist from Martha Stewart Living. "I want to rent a family like that next time I come here," says one of the people at my table. It's a joke -- but so potent is the fantasy served up by Mandola's Family Table that, then again, it isn't.

Mandola's Family Table, 7947 Katy Freeway, 680-3333.

Mandola's:
pork loin roast, $32;
linguini with garlic, butter and olive oil, $14;
lasagna, $26;
sfingi, $8.

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