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Family Feast

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

What a dinner party it would be. In my mind's eye, I can see them bellied up to the red-checked linens at Mandola's Family Table: George Foreman; Tom Arnold and Roseanne, together again; Rush Limbaugh; Chris Farley; Shaquille O'Neal. Stalwart eaters who would not flinch from the monumental logs of food dished out by this family-style establishment. And in such numbers -- a perfect half-dozen -- that they could extract maximum value from the oddly daunting joint venture between two intermarried Houston restaurant dynasties, the Laurenzos and the Mandolas.

Being ordinary mortals, my puny party of four had gaped in astonishment as a towering cube of bread pudding the size of a computer monitor was borne forth royally on a platter. A woman at the table that had ordered this $8 edifice clapped a hand to her mouth at the sight of it; then she shielded one eye behind her palm, as if asking the gods for protection.

We knew how she felt, having recently confronted a lasagna as big as Southside Place and a pork loin that had the heft of a young boa constrictor. It was just another Sunday dinner at grandma's house -- if your grandmothers happened to be Ninfa Laurenzo and Mama Grace Mandola, and half of your 200 cousins had shown up expecting a big, convivial, ultra-garlicky Italian feed.

It takes a while for newcomers to get the hang of the prodigious enterprise put together by half-Italian Jack Laurenzo and his all-Italian brother-in-law, Tony Mandola. First, there are the complicated logistics involved: gathering at least four people together (to dine a deux here is to defeat the point); negotiating the tricky reservations policy (tables are only held for six or more); achieving a consensus on what to eat. Then there's the sticker shock of the menu, with its $26 platters of this and $32 platters of that, its 12-buck salads and $18 plates of pasta. (Just remember to divide by the number of bodies at your table, and the panic will subside.)

Finally, there's the menu's perverse unhelpfulness -- its lack of guidelines about how many people these selections are likely to feed and its utter absence of explanation. All those mystifying family names tacked onto the dishes make ordering like cramming for an exam. Who remembers the difference between Salad Julian and Salad Tony? And what was the sauce on that Rigatoni Michael and Godfrey, anyway? The waiters, pleasant young men of the "Hi, I'm Josh" school of service, do their best to assist, but between their brisk rushing about and their staccato spiels, a degree of befuddlement can set in.

Get over it. While there are some clunkers in the repertoire, there are also reasons for celebration. One is that awe-inspiring roasted pork loin: beautifully and respectfully cooked with its pale pink interior and saltily seared crust, all set off by a garlicky, pleasantly bitterish bed of spinach. Even the odious-sounding "mushroom gravy" promised by a waiter turns out to be a minor miracle, its sauteed mushrooms bathed in a faintly sweet-sour broth underpinned by a lovely note of marsala.

I'm enough of a garlic-head to think that the splendidly simple linguini with butter and olive oil (why stop with one?) makes a suitable companion for this roast. Delicate souls might not agree, but then, delicate souls are in the wrong restaurant: on the whole this is indelicate food, prone to wicked amounts of oil, radical quantities of garlic and an occasional intemperate outburst of vinegar or salt. It's the kind of food that wants a rustic red wine to go along, something edgy enough to cut through the excess. (There's a $16 Montepulciano that does the job nicely.)

A few brisk salads could lighten things up, too, but Mandola's Family Table needs to work on this department. Salad Tony, with a yuppie's wish list of boutique greens, foundered in a sea of maniacally vinegary balsamic dressing. Salad Julian erred in the other direction, its laid-back, underapplied gorgonzola dressing refusing to do justice to a wealth of crisp romaine hearts and red cabbage.

They are certainly no match for the dish that cries out for a great salad -- the Wednesday- and Sunday-only lasagna, a mammoth spar that's so loosely and lightly constructed as to be counterintuitive. It's familial lasagna on an idealized plane: instead of the usual solid, tomatoey ballast shrouded in gooey cheese, the Mandola version is all grace and discretion, short on marinara and long on a soft, meaty filling leavened by ricotta and spiked with the odd sliver of pepperoni. It's exceptionally swell, right down to its whippet-thin pasta sheets. The Chinese family having such a high time at the next table seemed to think so, too.

Alas, it's disheartening to be served a great deal of something you don't find swell, and that does happen here. Chicken Contadina tasted surprisingly flat for a dish that seemed to have so much going for it: sausage, peppers, onion, tomato, garlic, potatoes. No chemistry ensued. Shrimp scampi were thwarted by their iodine content and a garlic sauce that seemed harsh instead of buoyant. The calamari ala Mama appetizer was a good idea gone slightly wrong: marginally rubbery fried squid got a nice lift from the pickled banana peppers that season the dish, but the lake of oil in which they reclined aggravated the sog factor.

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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