Nino's turns 30, and Houstonians want gelato with their Italian birthday cake

Seafood is not Nino's strong suit, as I discovered that night. I had the linguine pescatore, or fisherman's pasta, which is one of my favorite red-tablecloth Italian dishes. I clutched my napkin to my shirtfront in anticipation of an overflowing bowl of seafood and spaghetti in an exuberant sauce. What I got were a few clumps of twirled pasta with a little seafood sitting in the bottom of a bowl that looked mostly empty. What happened to the sauce?

My dining companion ordered the menu item called "branzino," which is described as "grilled red snapper, fresh lump crabmeat, sundried tomato, pinenuts and lemon butter." She didn't like the dish much. The piece of her fish that I tasted was overcooked. But the larger question was the nomenclature. Grilled red snapper and fresh lump crabmeat is a classic dish in this part of the world. Why is Nino's calling it "branzino," which is the Italian name for Mediterraean sea bass?

Branzino is a wonderful flaky fish that's being farm-raised in Italy these days. You can get it at upscale Houston Italian restaurants like Da Marco and even in good ethnic joints like Alexander the Great Greek. Last summer, in his blog "Diner's Journal," Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, complained that three out of four restaurants in New York were offering branzino as the fish special. And he was getting tired of it.

The osso buco is absolutely spectacular.
Daniel Kramer
The osso buco is absolutely spectacular.

Location Info



2817 W. Dallas St
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: River Oaks


Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays.

Pizza: $10.50

Panzotti: $12.95

Linguine pescatore: $16.95

Red snapper: $24.95

Veal chop: $38.95

2817 West Dallas, 713-522-5120.

So if Vincent Mandola wants to serve branzino, why doesn't he buy some?

On my last visit to Nino's, I shared a terrific Margherita pizza with Paul Galvani. It was crisp on the bottom and lightly dressed on the top, so it stayed crunchy. A generous shaving of parmesan over the top didn't hurt anything either.

We also sampled some excellent eggplant-stuffed panzotti pasta pillows in a light tomato-and-basil sauce. Galvani thought he detected some butternut squash in the filling. We split these, along with a monster veal chop cooked medium-rare. The chop was good, but a little gristly.

On a trip to the restroom, I stopped to take a look at a framed magazine story that hung on the wall. It was published in the Houston Post Sunday magazine, I think it said in January 1988. The Mandolas were the top restaurant family in town at the time. On the cover were brothers Damian, Vincent and Tony in their youthful glory.

On my way back to my table, I saw Vincent Mandola 20 years older. He was sitting with his family over a late lunch. Mary Mandola is responsible for the brilliant job of decorating and designing the restaurants. Vincent and Mary are also partners with their two namesake daughters, Vinceanne Mandola Green and Mary Dana Corbett, in the fast-casual Pronto Cucinino restaurant on Montrose. The second location of Pronto Cucinino is scheduled to open on West Holcombe Boulevard near Buffalo Speedway this June. It's good to see the next generation getting involved in the business.

I couldn't help but admire the sight of Vincent Mandola with his flowing silver mane and beard. The brash young chef of the 1980s has become the lion in winter. Sure, I have some quibbles about his menu and the food at Nino's. But you don't go to Nino's, Vincent's or Grappino di Nino for a cutting-edge dining experience. You go because the Mandola family has created an incredible oasis of Italian hospitality on West Dallas Street. And it's always a pleasure to be there.

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