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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 Laurenzos

Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo moved to Houston in 1949 with her husband, Domenic Tommy Laurenzo, and the two started a life selling tortillas and pizza dough out of a little shop on Navigation. Domenic died young, leaving Ninfa a widow at 46 with children to look after and a business that didn't make much money.

In 1973 Ninfa Laurenzo established Ninfa's restaurant in the front section of the tortilla factory. Using loans from a friend in Mexico, she was able to open a 40-seat restaurant, one that almost succumbed to a fire a week after it opened. But Laurenzo rallied, and the restaurant in what was considered a bad part of town became known for its cheap, hearty Tex-Mex and its gregarious owner and hostess.

[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.

It was the fajitas that initially made Laurenzo — now referred to lovingly as Mama Ninfa — famous in Houston, and then throughout Texas and the rest of the country. The restaurant became so popular that Ninfa was able to close the tortilla factory; expand the first location and open a second; on West­heimer, in 1975.

By 1980, the Ninfa's boom was in full swing. There were seven restaurants in Houston, so the family decided to expand to other cities. Branches in Dallas and San Antonio were less successful, but in 1983 the Ninfa's empire was the largest Hispanic-owned business in Houston.

Things started to go downhill in 1985, when Ninfa's partnered with McFaddin Ventures to protect itself against some of the risks involved in opening new restaurants. Not long after deals were signed, the relationship between the Laurenzos and McFaddin soured, with McFaddin suing the Laurenzos for allegedly trying to hurt service at McFaddin restaurants. The Laurenzos countersued, and both parties eventually agreed to a settlement.

Moving past the litigation, the Laurenzos founded RioStar Corporation, which set about expanding the Ninfa's name even further — including all the way to Leipzig, Germany. Unfortunately, the quick expansion caused RioStar to build up major debts with Sysco, the primary supplier of non-food goods for the restaurants. In 1996 the restaurant group, which now owned 40 restaurants around the country, was sued by Sysco for $2.8 million, which forced RioStar to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Two years later, Serrano's Cafe out of Austin bought RioStar, and the Laurenzos, who had worked so tirelessly to create an empire, were no longer involved with Ninfa's. In spite of agreeing to a non-compete clause in the deal, which stated that Ninfa Laurenzo could "not engage, directly or indirectly, as a consultant, employee, officer, director, owner, shareholder or investor in any business which owns, operates, provides or designs restaurants, cafes, bars, catering services, food delivery, or any other food business," her son, Roland, and grandson, Domenic, opened El Tiempo on Richmond in 1998. In name Ninfa was not involved, but as the Houston Press reported that same year, that didn't seem to be quite the case in practice.

El Tiempo thrived, and it now has five locations around Houston, including one right next to the original Ninfa's on Navigation. The family also owns Laurenzo's, a steak and seafood restaurant on Washington.

Mama Ninfa passed away from bone cancer in 2001, but her legacy lives on through Laurenzo's, El Tiempo and all the fajitas in Texas.

The Mandolas and The Carrabbas

"In our culture," Tony Mandola says, "we eat."

Mandola can hardly remember a time when he wasn't in a kitchen. His mother, Grace, the namesake of his nephew Johnny's newest restaurant, was always cooking and inviting her children to assist in the preparation of huge family meals.

"Every Sunday growing up, every family came to our house, and we would have those three-hour Sunday lunches," Mandola recalls. "Mom would start Saturday cooking the meatballs, and it was really overboard. We always had plenty of food in case someone came in."

When he was a teenager, Mandola helped out behind the counter at Ray Hay's restaurant, owned by his uncles Luke and Frankie B. Mandola and their friend Ray Hay. Because of that experience, he was a natural choice when it came time to open the original Ninfa's on Navigation. He had been best friends with one of Mama Ninfa's sons growing up, and he eventually started dating, and later married, her daughter Phyllis, linking the two major restaurant families. Though at the time, the couple explains, that wasn't the case.

"Back then we weren't two restaurant families," Phyllis Mandola says. "First Ninfa's opened, then the restaurant in Huntsville, then Tony and his brother Vincent Mandola opened Nino's in 1977, and before you know it, there were a bunch of Mandolas and Laurenzos in the business."

In an article published in the Austin Chronicle in 2009, Frankie B. Mandola recalls growing up in his family's Houston grocery store, where the women would get together in the back kitchen and cook up traditional Italian meals for 50 or 60 people. Frankie B.'s cousin, Frank A. Mandola, eventually turned the store into Mandola's Deli, which is still open on Leeland Street in East Downtown.

After helping open several restaurants himself, Mandola says, he became infatuated with New Orleans-style cuisine, like the type he ate at Houston's Capt. Benny's, which had opened in 1967, and he wanted to modify that idea and turn it into a place of his own.

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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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