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Meet the First Families of Houston Food

Connect the dots and you’ll find our city’s restaurant scene has been dominated by a few hardworking culinary pioneers and their descendants.

The Vallones

"L'occhio del padrone ingrassa il cavallo," Tony Vallone says. "The owner's eye fattens the horse."

It's an Italian proverb, and one that Vallone has recalled frequently during his nearly 50 years as a restaurateur.

Paul Petronella (left) remembers playing as a child with his cousin Brina D’Amico (center) in D’Amico’s Ristorante Italiano, which was owned by her father (right), Nash D’Amico.
Max Burkhalter
Paul Petronella (left) remembers playing as a child with his cousin Brina D’Amico (center) in D’Amico’s Ristorante Italiano, which was owned by her father (right), Nash D’Amico.
The Carrabbas, Mandolas and Laurenzos are all related through blood or marriage. (Left to right) Domenic Laurenzo, Johnny Carrabba, Tony and Phyllis Mandola, and Roland and Blanca Laurenzo.
Max Burkhalter
The Carrabbas, Mandolas and Laurenzos are all related through blood or marriage. (Left to right) Domenic Laurenzo, Johnny Carrabba, Tony and Phyllis Mandola, and Roland and Blanca Laurenzo.

"You don't achieve fine dining from a golf course or from an office in Cleveland," he says. Obviously he knows what he's talking about. Today many people know Vallone for his eponymous Italian powerhouse, Tony's, as well as Ciao Bello and his new steakhouse, Vallone's. Fewer remember the Vallone Restaurant Group's Los Tonyos, Anthony's, La Griglia, Grotto and a previous incarnation of Vallone's. Though Vallone himself no longer owns these places, he wants to make one thing clear: "We've never closed a restaurant. We've sold them, but we've never closed."

Vallone started in the restaurant industry as a saucier, working his way through kitchens around Houston before finally opening his own restaurant, Tony's, in 1965 in the location that currently houses the Macy's on Sage Road. In 1972 he moved his small Italian joint to a larger spot on Post Oak, and during the reconfiguration of the place, the food switched from hearty Italian to fine dining.

"We were at the first place seven years, and Gerald Hines, the developer, came up to me and said, 'I've got to tear this place down,'" he explains. "He said he wanted us to move to a new shopping center on Post Oak, and he could arrange for us to get the loans, but he also wanted fine dining, no more mom-and-pop style. It was a hit right away."

Vallone's second restaurant was Anthony's, which he opened in Montrose in 1982. Shortly after that came Grotto, which opened in Highland Village in 1987, and La Griglia, which opened in 1989. In the mid-'90s he opened a steakhouse called Vallone's, which was later taken over by Anthony's after Vallone's lost its lease in 2002.

Tex-Mex concept Los Tonyos was open for about a year before it was sold to the Serrano's Cafe Group (the same people who now own Ninfa's). And then, in 2004, Landry's bought La Griglia, Grotto and Vallone's, leaving the master restaurateur with only Tony's.

"In 2003 I got very sick," Vallone explains. "I was one of the first people to have West Nile. I almost died. They told me I might not have long to live, so that's when I sold the restaurants to make sure my wife and family would be taken care of."

Clearly Vallone has gotten back in the game with a vengeance, moving Tony's to its current location and opening Ciao Bello and the new Vallone's steakhouse, but he does sometimes wish he'd hung onto his other establishments.

"Had I not been so worried about my health and thinking it was over for me, I wouldn't have sold," he says. "But I did the right thing and made the right decision for my family at the time."

Ciao Bello opened in 2009, and though the casual Italian restaurant wasn't an immediate hit, it has grown into one of the best Italian eateries in town. Later there was the short-lived Caffe Bello, which never quite matched people's impressions of what a Tony Vallone restaurant should be.

Meanwhile, his son Jeff opened Amici in Sugar Land in 2007, but later closed that restaurant to focus on working with his father at Caffe Bello and Ciao Bello. He remains involved in Ciao Bello and Tony's, and Vallone's daughter Lauri Mazzini is the group's business manager.

"And of course my wife, Donna, is my partner," Vallone is quick to remind people. "She's my partner in everything. She has this wonderful warmness to her. She adds so much warmth to the restaurant because she's so kind, sweet and motherly."

In late 2013, he opened Vallone's along with Scott Sulma, the general manager and partner, and Grant Gordon, the executive chef and another partner in the restaurant, and, of course, Donna was right there by his side through it all. Gordon left the group earlier this month to pursue other options, but Tony says the new steakhouse is continuing to draw crowds.

For his part, the 70-something-year-old spitfire isn't slowing down anytime soon.

"I think as long as you work, you're going to stay young and vital," he explains. "If God's good to me, I'll work forever.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'When are you going to retire? You're getting old.' I was offended. I said, 'First of all, I don't feel old. And I hope they carry me out of here with pasta in one hand and fish in the other.'"

The Molinas

Why did Ricardo Molina's family get into the restaurant business?

"They wanted to eat, I guess," Molina says, chuckling.

His grandfather, Raul Molina Sr., whom he calls Papa, came to Houston from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in the late 1920s to escape the Mexican Civil War. Upon his arrival he couldn't speak any English, but he was able to save money working as a dishwasher and busboy at the downtown James Coney Island. He was eventually promoted to working the counter at Tip Top Coney Island (now closed).

In 1928 Raul Molina married Mary Sarabia, whose family started a Mexican newspaper, La Gaceta Mexicana, that focused on the perspective of Mexicans living in Houston rather than just reporting on what was happening in Mexico. Ricardo Molina recalls that his grandmother's family had to figure out how to make money after her father was killed by bandits during the Mexican Civil War, so they started the expat newspaper and opened a Mexican grocery store.

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15 comments
keith2127
keith2127

@Kaitlin  I wanted to send this article to someone out of state, but can only see some of it up to the first part of the Patranellas.  How do I get the whole article? Is this a website problem?


cmetz
cmetz

Where is Luke Mandola and the Rajun Cajun?

Vinh
Vinh

What about the family behind Kim Son?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

Though Vallone himself no longer owns these places, he wants to make one thing clear: "We've never closed a restaurant. We've sold them, but we've never closed."

Not true. Vallone closed Cafe Bello in Montrose, as mentioned later in the story.

Sedona
Sedona

Local stories like this, full of context and how it relates to my experience today, is why I continue to love Houston Press. Thank you and keep it coming.

oldschoolitalian
oldschoolitalian

The story about D'amico's Italian Ristorante is not 100% true. Frank Petronella was never an owner in the restaurant. Frank and his brother Bernard where just employees of the restaurant who barely even showed up to work because they had a few bad habits that prevented them from getting up in the morning. After Nash D'amico and Damian Mandola sold there parts in the restaurant to Charles Petronella and Tony Rao. So tell little Paulie he needs to get the truth from his dad and uncle. 


glukin
glukin

Is there a higher resolution version of the family history graphic?  It looks very interesting, but it's not legible!

BrodoDiVitello
BrodoDiVitello

@cmetz

Yeah, he had that liquor store next to Ragin on Richmond, and there was that crazy partner of his, what was his name, Frankie Messina, maybe? 

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@Kylejack  Vallone said he sold Caffe Bello to an investor. I don't think he considers that closing outright. I think it's a matter of opinion. Thanks for reading, though.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@thibbodo @keith2127  Yes, I am too. I'd say give it an hour and refresh. I'll let our web guy know though. Sorry about that!

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@KaitlinS I think he transferred the lease to the Don Julio business owner, which I don't really see as selling the business. If it ceased to operate as Cafe Bello when he ended his involvement, I see that as closing a restaurant.

 
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