Cioppino
Cioppino
Photo by Debora Smail

Johnny Carrabba's Cookbook: A Roller Coaster of a Restaurant Story With Beautiful Food

He was going to college at the time and says himself he "wasn't much of a student." But he wanted to go into the business world. He had some advantages: He came from a Sicilian family with a strong work ethic, one that was willing to help its relatives get a good start in life.

He got into restaurants almost by happenstance, but the years of effort have paid off. In fact, so much so that now, in celebration of 30 years of being in business, restaurant owner Johnny Carrabba has put together With Gratitude, an impressively hefty volume filled with beautiful photographs and page after page of recipes.

What makes the 288-page book more enjoyable is the stories Carrabba tells along the way, such as how he was waiting tables at his Uncle Tony's Tony Mandola's Blue Oyster Bar when another uncle — Damian Mandola — asked him to go into business with him and open a casual-style Italian restaurant.

This was at a time when the Houston economy was in the dumpster and banks didn't want to lend them any money. Yet somehow they were able to pull it off and build what became known as one of the most popular and long-lasting restaurants in Houston.

Pancakes with caramel sauce
Pancakes with caramel sauce
Photo by Debora Smail
Beef and chorizo picadillo
Beef and chorizo picadillo
Photo by Debora Smail

Half the fun is reading the names given to some of the recipes in the book. Carrabba liked naming dishes after his family and friends. There's Snapper Wulfe (Realtor Ed Wulfe), Mr. C's Italian Fennel Sausage (his dad went by Mr. C), and Les Allison's Fish Tacos. (Allison kept asking Carrabba why he didn't serve fish tacos.)

Clearly this is a book with happy endings, but not without struggles along the way. Toward the end, Carrabba talks about how his newest venture, Grace's (named after his grandmother Grace Mandola), wasn't working until his wife, Randi, urged him to step in and fix it. Which he was able to do by focusing the menu on a theme, concentrating on the kind of dishes his grandmother would make.

All in all, it makes for an enjoyable story to read, especially while standing over a stove or by an oven, putting together one of his restaurant's recipes, a glass of wine by your side.

The man himself.
The man himself.
Photo by Debora Smail

Copies of With Gratitude can be purchased at Carrabbascookbook.com. At these restaurants: Carrabba's on Kirby, Carrabba's on Voss, Grace's and Mia's. Also it will be available locally at Events Gifts, Bering's, local Barnes and Noble, Back Row, and Amazon. $50.

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