During dinnertime on a Tuesday, the tables are set and the bar is stocked, but it's still dark inside the unopened Grace's restaurant on Kirby. Back in the kitchen, Johnny Carrabba and his staff are putting the finishing touches on the back of the house, finalizing every detail and making sure the space is perfect for the grand opening the following day. In spite of his overwhelming success in the restaurant business thus far, Carrabba is anxious.
"This business is tough," he says. "It's kind of like an entertainer coming out with a new album. You like it, but you don't know how the public is going to accept it. You're kind of putting yourself on the line, and you feel very vulnerable. There's a lot of anxiety, but that's kind of why we do this."
This project is particularly important to Carrabba because the inspiration behind Grace's is so personal. Grace Mandola was his maternal grandmother, a first-generation American born in Louisiana, and this restaurant will be his tribute to her.
It won't be another Carrabba's, though. It won't even be an Italian restaurant. Grace's will serve a little bit of everything, just as Grace herself did. There's a story that's been passed around for a few generations about how Grace used to trade her famous Italian meatballs for tamales when she lived in Houston's East End. Carrabba doesn't know whether that's true, but he does recall that when he was growing up, there were always tamales around the house. There was also gumbo, a dish Grace learned how to make while living in Louisiana, and fried oysters, a Gulf Coast specialty. She mastered everything from tortilla soup to meat loaf, while still teaching her family how to make Italian food so good that the recipes would later help build restaurant empires.
"When I look at Grace's, I think it's very comforting," he says. "I want it to feel like Houston. Look how diverse Houston is. It's very eclectic, wandering. I think Grace would be proud of it."
Grace Mandola would likely be very proud of the legacy she has left in Houston. Her children, the Mandolas, have opened some of the most successful restaurants in the town's history. Her family also includes the Petronellas, who are related to the D'Amicos and the Patrenellas, and of course the Carrabbas, who now own restaurants in 32 states. These restaurant families have shaped the way we eat in Houston, along with the Cordúas, Goodes, Laurenzos, Molinas, Pappases, Vallones and, of course, the Landrys, who started with a small Gulf seafood restaurant in Katy in 1980. Landrys, Inc. maintains headquarters in Houston, but the business ceased to be a family-run Houston venture after Tilman Fertitta gained control of the company and took it global in 1986. He now owns more than 450 restaurants, casinos and hotels around the world.
Still, the Landrys and the other pioneering restaurant families are the reason that Houston has been able to keep so many large chains out and, in doing so, embrace the smaller, local restaurants that make this culinary scene so exciting and so personal.
In Houston, you won't find scores of Olive Garden restaurants. They can't compete with the family-run Italian eateries that Houstonians love. There's one On the Border Tex-Mex restaurant in town, three Johnny Carino's locations out in the suburbs and a handful of Red Lobsters. According to Forbes, we have more local restaurants per capita than most other cities in the country, and fewer chains than other American metropolitan areas.
And we have these families to thank for that. Most of the information about these 11 families came from interviews with matriarchs, patriarchs and children who now run the business, as well as historical information posted on the restaurants' websites and previously published articles in the Houston Press. Thanks to all the families who reached out to tell their stories.
As with many Houston restaurant families, Sammy Patrenella's career in the industry began in a grocery store. His father ran the store, called Patrenella's Grocery, and the family lived in a small apartment behind it until, in 1938, his father built the bungalow that today houses Patrenella's Restaurant, and the family moved in there.
"I'll tell you something very interesting about Houston families in the restaurant business," Patrenella says. "I'm guessing 99 percent of our parents were in the small neighborhood grocery business, which went away after the war. You could make a living servicing a two-block area. All of our parents were great cooks, and all of us ended up in the restaurant business. The history of the neighborhood groceries is tied to the Carrabbas and D'Amicos and Mandolas and all of us."
After World War II, larger grocery stores began taking over Houston, and Patrenella's father decided to turn the grocery store into an apartment and rent it out. At that time, he says, his family became slumlords and he booked musical acts coming through town on the side.