Damian Mandola looked fat and happy at the Texas Book Festival in Austin last month, where he was showing off his new book, Ciao Sicily. It's the companion cookbook for the new season of the PBS Italian cooking series, Cucina Amore. Mandola and nephew Johnny Carrabba are hosting the show for the third season, this time around concentrating on the rustic, spicy foods of Sicily.
Their previous companion cookbook, Ciao Y'all, about Italian-style grilling, has been popular both with fans of Mandola's restaurants (including Damian's Cucina Italiana and Carrabba's Italian Grill, which the Cucina Amore hosts opened together) and fans of the show. The books were published by the hot new Albany, Texas-based company Bright Sky Press, which has stepped in to produce the kind of regional books that Houston's Gulf Publishing specialized in before its demise.
Mandola and Carrabba aren't the first Italian boys to try to make it big on Cucina Amore. Seattle chef Nick Stellino hosted the show's first season, and Hollywood character actor Vincent Schiavelli took a shot at the TV spaghetti game, too. But nobody has lasted as long as our hometown boys; Mandola and Carrabba have pulled in the best ratings the show's ever seen.
"Is your biggest audience in the South?" I asked Mandola.
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"No, believe it or not, it's the East Coast and California," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "When I'm in New York, they recognize me from the show. Walk up to me on the street. The strangest time that happened, I was in a little village in Italy, and two guys from San Francisco recognized me. In Italy! We're popular in the South, but our biggest audience is the East."
I sampled a luscious appetizer from the book, made from velvety roasted eggplant slices rolled around rich Italian cheeses, while Mandola drifted off to shake hands with book festival VIPs. A guy who'd been eating eggplant and listening to our conversation volunteered his own opinion. "The reason Damian Mandola is so great on that show is because he's enthusiastic and effusive, but he's also a bubba."
When Mandola was free to talk again, I asked him for his own assessment of the show's success. "This show has gone through a lot of hosts," I said to Mandola. "But nobody has done as well as you. Why have you been such a big hit?" The short, plump, bald man leaned back on the counter and smiled hugely.
"Good looks," he said.