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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.

"In order to keep everything going, it was a 24/7 job," Levi says. "My dad and my uncle practically lived there. One of them would sleep on the picnic bench outside, and the other one would sleep near the pit on a cot or on a chest freezer. They had a loaded shotgun and an alarm clock, and they'd wake up every hour and check on the meat and stoke the fire and reload the wood."

Even with such dedication, business started off slow. Jim Goode would measure growth by how many bags of trash filled with paper plates he'd take out to the curb at night. By the time he was filling up half a dozen or more bags of trash each day, he decided it was time to look into opening another restaurant.

In 1983 Goode opened the Goode Co. Taqueria, which featured standards from his grandmother's kitchen and items cooked on a mesquite grill. There was an abandoned brick warehouse behind the taqueria that was turned into an office and test kitchen. Three years later the family borrowed some of what they'd learned with the taqueria and working with a mesquite grill and applied those techniques to Gulf Coast seafood at the first Goode Co. Seafood, on Westpark.

[Click here to enlarge.]
Graphic by Monica Fuentes
1. Ninfa Laurenzo and her grandson Domenic, who is now the executive chef and owner of El Tiempo restaurants. 2. Three generations of the Molina family: (left to right) Raul III,Mary Molina, Raul Sr. and Raul Jr. 3. Nash D'Amico and Charles Petronella in their first restaurant, which was located in Huntsville. 4. Michael Cordúa teaches his son, David, how to cook.
Photos courtesy of the respective families
1. Ninfa Laurenzo and her grandson Domenic, who is now the executive chef and owner of El Tiempo restaurants. 2. Three generations of the Molina family: (left to right) Raul III,Mary Molina, Raul Sr. and Raul Jr. 3. Nash D'Amico and Charles Petronella in their first restaurant, which was located in Huntsville. 4. Michael Cordúa teaches his son, David, how to cook.

"My parents got divorced in the early years of the restaurant business," Levi Goode says. "It's hard. My sister and I ended up moving to southern Louisiana with my mother, and during that time we experienced a lot of Cajun festivals and famous restaurants from Lafayette to New Orleans and everywhere in between. So that's why you see things on our menu like gumbo and étouffée. The primary influence is Texas Gulf Coast seafood, but you also get Mexican and Cajun/Creole dishes as well."

During the next ten years, the Goodes opened another barbecue restaurant and the Barbeque Hall of Flame, a retail shop catering to all things barbecue. They also began shipping their now-famous pecan pies in the signature pine boxes.

By 2000 the Internet had begun to take over shopping, so Levi, now in business with his father, decided to move the barbecue store online and turn the former storefront into another restaurant. In 2003 the father-son team opened Armadillo Palace next to the original Goode Co. BBQ on Kirby, but it didn't have a name at first.

That was solved when Levi and his father came across a giant armadillo outside an antique store in Wyoming. They hauled it back to Texas, jazzed it up with some mosaic tiles and Armadillo Palace was born.

Levi Goode now owns the entire business on his own, and he's happy to keep the Goode name here in Houston.

"I wouldn't say we'll never leave Houston, but I think there are still opportunities in the city," he says. "We just finished a new commissary that also houses our e-commerce business with the test kitchen, so everything's under one roof. So we have a good foundation for really evaluating what's next."

The D'Amicos and The  Petronellas

"Most of the Houston Italians are from Sicily," Brina D'Amico explains. "We're all sort of semi-related in some way. Everyone came from the same areas in Sicily and came in through the Port of Galveston."

Brina is the daughter of Nash D'Amico, owner of D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe, a Rice Village fixture since 1996. Today the two are partners in their restaurant company, but Nash started in the industry back in 1975.

He graduated from Sam Houston State University along with his cousins Tony and Damian Mandola, and the trio weren't quite sure what to do with themselves after college."They had business degrees and a couple of recipes," she says of her father's decision to open a restaurant. "I think they did it on a whim, and it was something they were all good at. And it evolved. It wasn't a driving passion where they'd been dreaming about it since childhood."

The cousins borrowed $2,000 from relatives and opened Damian's Fine Italian Food in Huntsville in 1975. The restaurant was a success, even though the boys didn't really know what they were doing.

"The first kitchen we had was so hot," Nash D'Amico recalls. "We made friends with David Tinsley of Tinsley's Fried Chicken in Huntsville, and one day he came into the kitchen and asked why it was so hot. We didn't know we needed an exhaust fan over the stove."

Encouraged by how well their first restaurant did in Huntsville, all three cousins moved back home to Houston, where D'Amico opened D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano in 1977 and the Mandolas went on to open their own restaurants.

From 1983 to 1992, D'Amico opened four more restaurants, all called Nash D'Amico's Pasta & Clam Bar: one in Rice Village, one on Westheimer, one in Galveston and one in Clear Lake.

In 1995 he decided he wanted to spend more time with his family and also get back to the small, family-style restaurants he likes best, so he closed the Pasta & Clam Bars and created D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe, which remains a popular eatery in Rice Village.

Around that time, Brina D'Amico entered the business, though, like her father, she says running a restaurant was never part of her plan.

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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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