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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 got in the position to open my own restaurant in 1982 with the Blue Oyster Bar on Gulf Freeway," Mandola says. "Between downtown and Kemah, there was no other seafood place. I had 35 seats divided between a long bar and seven tables, and that was it. And it was a tremendous success. We had a line out the door every Friday and Saturday night."

When other seafood restaurants discovered the area between downtown and Kemah, Mandola expanded his business by opening another Blue Oyster Bar, on Shepherd, where Spaghetti Western is now located. In 1988, Tony and Phyllis had the opportunity to move to the River Oaks shopping center, so they opened Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen. Several years ago they moved again, to the current location on Waugh Drive, and Brasserie 19 moved into the space they left. They also dropped the "Gulf Coast Kitchen" part of the name, making the restaurant simply Tony Mandola's.

During the years that Tony Mandola was making a name for himself in the restaurant business, his brother, ­Damian Mandola, and Frankie B. opened Damian's Cucina Italiana, which is still serving customers today. In 1986 Damian Mandola went into business with his nephew Johnny Carrabba, who says he never wanted to go into the grocery business, as the Carrabba side of the family had done, because it seemed as if the hours would be too long. He later discovered that restaurants require even longer hours.

[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.

"When I was growing up, I was really raised in the grocery store business," Carrabba says. "We had Carrabba's Friendly Grocery, where my dad was the butcher, my grandpa was the owner and my grandmother was the cashier. We ran this business where all the customers had credit. I learned a lot about how to run a neighborhood business from the grocery store."

When Carrabba wanted to open Carrabba's, the whole family helped get it up and running. He and Damian Mandola were turned down for a loan by ten different banks before an 11th bank finally decided to take a chance on them.

The original restaurant was a 3,000-square-foot building that had previously been an adult bookstore, but the family built a wood-burning pizza oven in the space, and, thanks to Damian Mandola's reputation, the crowds came. In 1988 Carrabba and Mandola opened a second location, at Woodway and Voss, where Carrab­ba's father, John Charles, still makes sausage and his mother, Rose Marie, greets diners ­every day.

"In 1993 we got approached by Outback Steakhouse, who wanted to grow the company," Carrabba explains, but he doesn't want people to think Carrabba's is only corporate now. "Even though we have an interest in the chain Carrabba's, I own the two originals solely now, as well as Mia's, named after my daughter, and now Grace's, named after my grandmother."

In spite of his dedication to the traditional Italian recipes his grandmother first made for him more than 50 years ago, Carrabba isn't averse to change.

"The main thing for me is most companies lose their vision and culture as they get older, and we work hard to keep those old-fashioned values," he says. "But on the other hand, even though we hold onto our our old-fashioned values, I tore down the original Carrabba's and rebuilt it. You can hold onto your old values, but you can't become old. You can't become a dinosaur."

And that's where Grace's comes in. It's a departure from the classic Italian food of Carrabba's, and Johnny Carrabba thinks it may be his final foray into a new business venture.

"It's been a very interesting run," he says. "But again, I'm not the kind of person who wants to sit back and celebrate. I have work to do."

kaitlin.steinberg @houstonpress.com

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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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