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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.

"I didn't work for my dad until I was 18," she says. "I didn't want anything to do with it. I went to College Station for a year and didn't know what I was going to do, so I came back to Houston to study hotel and restaurant management thinking I'd do catering. Then I realized that catering is actually harder than the restaurant business. So I thought I'd give it a shot."

In 2011 the father-and-daughter team decided to partner with Hospitality USA Management Inc. (HUSA) to expand the D'Amico empire. They hope to open additional D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe locations throughout Houston with the help of HUSA, but the original in Rice Village remains family-owned.

"A lot of us are in the restaurant business," Brina D'Amico says. "The generation before us were all in the grocery business. And now it's going over to the next generation. You can't get away from it. It's in all of us."

[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.

Indeed, her cousin Paul Petronella of Paulie's remembers growing up in the kitchen of his uncle Nash's ­restaurants, playing with Brina, sleeping in the office and eating garnishes at the bar.

"Nash D'Amico and my two uncles, Charles and Frank Petronella, owned this full-service Italian restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby," Petronella says, referring to D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano. "So I've just always been around that kitchen scene. Dad would always come home smelling like the kitchen. Then my parents opened Paulie's in 1998."

After the success of the original Paulie's at Westheimer and Driscoll, Petronella's parents, father Bernard and stepmother Kathy, opened three more Paulie's restaurants starting in 2006 — one at Holcombe and Kirby, one on the north side of town off Louetta and one in Galveston.

After going to school to study advertising, Petronella came back to his roots and took over the Paulie's restaurants in 2009. He sold all of them except the original, on which he chose to focus his attention in an effort to improve the quality of the food and the overall experience.

"We've gone through some transformations," Petronella says. "When I took over, it had already been open ten years, and it had a following. The question was, how do you make it your own without pissing people off? So changes came really, really slow."

Paulie's is now a popular Italian restaurant that draws crowds of industry professionals who know they're going to get a great Italian meal out of Paul Petronella's kitchen. Last year he opened a wine bar, Camerata at Paulie's, expanding his empire beyond Italian food. He'd like to open an Italian market or something similar someday, but he says he doubts there will be any more Paulie's locations.

"This is the original," he says, "and we like it that way."

The Pappases

Pappas might just be the most famous name in Houston. In nearly every square mile inside the Loop, there's a Pappas restaurant to be found, and we can thank Pete and Jim Pappas and Jim's sons, Chris, Greg and Harris, for that.

The Pappas history actually began much earlier, though, with Pete and Jim's father, H.D. Pappas, who emigrated from Greece in 1897 and opened Greek restaurants in Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee. In 1946 Jim and Pete (and their two other brothers) moved to Houston from Dallas and began selling refrigeration equipment. During that time, Pete patented several types of commercial refrigeration equipment, some of which are still in use today. Eventually the refrigeration business led to a restaurant-supply business, but the brothers weren't happy merely selling to restaurants. They wanted to own one.

Dot Coffee Shop opened inside 610 off I-45 in 1967, and shortly thereafter the brothers ventured into the barbecue business with the Brisket House, now called Pappas Bar-B-Q. In 1970 Jim Pappas's sons joined the family business, eventually opening their first restaurant, the Strawberry Patch, which later became Pappas Bros. ­Steakhouse.

The Pappases were still involved in the refrigeration and restaurant supply company, though, and their work often brought them to the original Houston Don's, owned by the Landrys and Jim Gossen. The brothers learned a lot about Cajun-style Gulf seafood at Don's, where they would ask questions and pick up tips from Gossen and the Landrys.

In 1981 the Pappases opened the first Pappas Seafood House. Jim Pappas died the following year, and his sons built him a legacy by expanding the business at lightning speed. By 1989 the brothers had 25 restaurants in the greater Houston area, and began expanding into Dallas, Austin and, later, San Antonio. Pete Pappas remained involved until the late 1990s, when he stepped down as head of the company.

The original Strawberry Patch restaurant closed in 1993, and in its place the Pappas family built the first Pappas Bros. Steakhouse three years later. It joined the other Pappas ventures: Pappas Seafood House, Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Little Pappas Seafood House and Pappas Bar-B-Que.

Since then the Pappases have also opened Yia Yia Mary's and Pappas Burgers, as well as a successful catering company. Today there are 50 Pappas restaurants in Houston and dozens more throughout Texas and in Chicago and ­Atlanta.

The Pappases and fans of the restaurants credit the family's success to the large portions they serve and their ability to keep prices down and quality up. All the Pappas restaurants have established themselves as leaders in their respective genres — from the fresh seafood at the Seafood House to the great Texas barbecue at Pappas Bar-B-Q. Grandpa Pappas would be mighty proud.

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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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