Meet the First Families of Houston Food
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.
For a brief time in the 1960s, Sammy Patrenella owned a burger joint called Sammy's Burgers A Go-Go, but the restaurant was short-lived. In 1991, his son suggested he give the burger business another try, so he turned the family homestead into a burger and meatball sub shop.
"My wife started making the marinara sauce for the meatball sandwiches," he recalls. "And then she made pasta, then lasagna, and the next thing you know...I can't remember the last time we served a hamburger."
Even fairly recently, though, Patrenella says, the area where Patrenella's sits off Washington Avenue was a bad neighborhood. He recalls that ABC came to town in 1991 to film a segment about the improvements in Houston inner-city neighborhoods, and the mayor suggested the crew speak with Sammy.
"The interviewer said, 'What made you come in this barrio?'" Patrenella remembers. "And I said I didn't have enough money to open in the Galleria. And the mayor yelled 'Cut!' So we changed it to 'It's my roots and I wanted to give something back to where I grew up.'"
Today Patrenella is still just as spunky, and he's still in the restaurant every day. His son is in charge of private parties and relieves his father at night, and one of his daughters does the payroll and insurance and keeps the books.
"I guess you'd call it a family affair," Patrenella says. "And here's the best part: When I wake up in the morning, it's 48 steps to the cash register."
Patriarch Michael Cordúa didn't intend to be a restaurateur. He was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and initially came to Houston to study economics and finance at Texas A&M University, graduating in 1980. By that time, the revolution in Nicaragua had made it a dangerous place to return to, so Cordúa started working for the International Gulf Chartering company at the Port of Houston. He was a port captain and shipping agent, which he enjoyed, but when the oil boom went bust in the mid-'80s, the shipping company was liquidated. Cordúa found himself with a wife and young family, a lot of free time, and no solid career path.
"The owner of the company closed down," Cordúa explains. "I didn't see myself out of a job. I saw myself out of a career. I knew cooking was what I loved to do. I had a hard time believing that, but it's true."
Cordúa had taught himself to cook shortly after moving to Houston because he missed the food of his home country. Suddenly without a job, he decided to take a gamble and open a small restaurant to showcase the food of his homeland.
On August 8, 1988, Cordúa opened his first restaurant, Churrascos, even though he had no formal training in the industry or in a kitchen. In spite of the fact that the food won high praise from critics, the restaurant lost money initially, because people were more accustomed to Tex-Mex cuisine than Latin American food. In 1989, however, Churrascos made Esquire magazine's "Best New Restaurants in America" list, and people began to take notice of the 130-seat Latin American joint.
"When we opened using the Spanish word churrascos, people assumed it was Mexican," Cordúa says. "There was no genre of Latin American. When we were opening, Houston had very good steak, very good barbecue, good Tex-Mex and some Italian, but very little beyond that."
Thanks to the popularity of the first restaurant, Cordúa opened a second, larger Churrascos in 1990, emphasizing the namesake churrasco meat that he is credited with introducing to the United States. In 1994, Cordúa was named a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine, and he was later inducted into the Food & Wine Hall of Fame.
Following the success of Churrascos, Cordúa decided to go a bit more upscale with Américas, which was named restaurant of the year by Esquire in 1993. Later came Amazón Grill in 1999, Artista in 2002 and another Churrascos.
In 2007, Cordúa's son, David, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris, decided to join the family business, though, as with his father, cooking wasn't his ultimate goal, either.
"For David, it was seen as a punishment," Cordúa says. "If he missed curfew, he'd have to go peel plantains. He thought he was going to be a rock-and-roll man, not a chef."
It wasn't until college, when David found himself working in a soup kitchen, his father says, that he "discovered the power of food."
Together, the father-and-son team has expanded the business into eight Houston restaurants and a hugely successful catering company. The fourth Churrascos opened in Gateway Memorial City in late fall 2013.
The elder Cordúa doesn't necessarily credit the fact that his restaurants are part of a local chain for his success.
"I don't think it's so much that people are faithful to their roots here," he says. "I think it's that we know our people here."
The family recently came out with a cookbook that features 99 recipes, many of which helped make the restaurants famous. It's not a traditional Latin American cookbook, because the Cordúas have been so influenced by the melting pot of cultures and cuisines in Houston, from Tex-Mex to Vietnamese. There are also some new recipes that David says are indicative of the continuing evolution of the Cordúa restaurants and the directions the family will be going in the future.
"L'occhio del padrone ingrassa il cavallo," Tony Vallone says. "The owner's eye fattens the horse."
It's an Italian proverb, and one that Vallone has recalled frequently during his nearly 50 years as a restaurateur.
"You don't achieve fine dining from a golf course or from an office in Cleveland," he says. Obviously he knows what he's talking about. Today many people know Vallone for his eponymous Italian powerhouse, Tony's, as well as Ciao Bello and his new steakhouse, Vallone's. Fewer remember the Vallone Restaurant Group's Los Tonyos, Anthony's, La Griglia, Grotto and a previous incarnation of Vallone's. 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."
Vallone started in the restaurant industry as a saucier, working his way through kitchens around Houston before finally opening his own restaurant, Tony's, in 1965 in the location that currently houses the Macy's on Sage Road. In 1972 he moved his small Italian joint to a larger spot on Post Oak, and during the reconfiguration of the place, the food switched from hearty Italian to fine dining.
"We were at the first place seven years, and Gerald Hines, the developer, came up to me and said, 'I've got to tear this place down,'" he explains. "He said he wanted us to move to a new shopping center on Post Oak, and he could arrange for us to get the loans, but he also wanted fine dining, no more mom-and-pop style. It was a hit right away."
Vallone's second restaurant was Anthony's, which he opened in Montrose in 1982. Shortly after that came Grotto, which opened in Highland Village in 1987, and La Griglia, which opened in 1989. In the mid-'90s he opened a steakhouse called Vallone's, which was later taken over by Anthony's after Vallone's lost its lease in 2002.
Tex-Mex concept Los Tonyos was open for about a year before it was sold to the Serrano's Cafe Group (the same people who now own Ninfa's). And then, in 2004, Landry's bought La Griglia, Grotto and Vallone's, leaving the master restaurateur with only Tony's.
"In 2003 I got very sick," Vallone explains. "I was one of the first people to have West Nile. I almost died. They told me I might not have long to live, so that's when I sold the restaurants to make sure my wife and family would be taken care of."
Clearly Vallone has gotten back in the game with a vengeance, moving Tony's to its current location and opening Ciao Bello and the new Vallone's steakhouse, but he does sometimes wish he'd hung onto his other establishments.
"Had I not been so worried about my health and thinking it was over for me, I wouldn't have sold," he says. "But I did the right thing and made the right decision for my family at the time."
Ciao Bello opened in 2009, and though the casual Italian restaurant wasn't an immediate hit, it has grown into one of the best Italian eateries in town. Later there was the short-lived Caffe Bello, which never quite matched people's impressions of what a Tony Vallone restaurant should be.
Meanwhile, his son Jeff opened Amici in Sugar Land in 2007, but later closed that restaurant to focus on working with his father at Caffe Bello and Ciao Bello. He remains involved in Ciao Bello and Tony's, and Vallone's daughter Lauri Mazzini is the group's business manager.
"And of course my wife, Donna, is my partner," Vallone is quick to remind people. "She's my partner in everything. She has this wonderful warmness to her. She adds so much warmth to the restaurant because she's so kind, sweet and motherly."
In late 2013, he opened Vallone's along with Scott Sulma, the general manager and partner, and Grant Gordon, the executive chef and another partner in the restaurant, and, of course, Donna was right there by his side through it all. Gordon left the group earlier this month to pursue other options, but Tony says the new steakhouse is continuing to draw crowds.
For his part, the 70-something-year-old spitfire isn't slowing down anytime soon.
"I think as long as you work, you're going to stay young and vital," he explains. "If God's good to me, I'll work forever.
"Someone asked me the other day, 'When are you going to retire? You're getting old.' I was offended. I said, 'First of all, I don't feel old. And I hope they carry me out of here with pasta in one hand and fish in the other.'"
Why did Ricardo Molina's family get into the restaurant business?
"They wanted to eat, I guess," Molina says, chuckling.
His grandfather, Raul Molina Sr., whom he calls Papa, came to Houston from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in the late 1920s to escape the Mexican Civil War. Upon his arrival he couldn't speak any English, but he was able to save money working as a dishwasher and busboy at the downtown James Coney Island. He was eventually promoted to working the counter at Tip Top Coney Island (now closed).
In 1928 Raul Molina married Mary Sarabia, whose family started a Mexican newspaper, La Gaceta Mexicana, that focused on the perspective of Mexicans living in Houston rather than just reporting on what was happening in Mexico. Ricardo Molina recalls that his grandmother's family had to figure out how to make money after her father was killed by bandits during the Mexican Civil War, so they started the expat newspaper and opened a Mexican grocery store.
"Mama had some tough brothers," he says. "Papa met her and they eloped, because their relationship didn't go over too well with the brothers. He says some Jews hid him out in a chicken coop when the brothers came to annul the marriage with a .38."
Eventually Mary's brothers came around on the marriage, and she and Raul Sr. began saving money to open their own restaurant. By 1941 they were able to open the Old Monterrey Restaurant at 1919 West Gray.
"They lived upstairs and had the restaurant downstairs," Molina says. "It was a small deal. Papa had worked in restaurants and Mama could cook. It wasn't even a Mexican restaurant, though. It was more like a diner. And they'd have to lay off half the staff during the summer because they didn't have air-conditioning and no one wanted hot, heavy food in the summer."
Still, the couple made it work, in part because there were only five or six other Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time. In 1945 the restaurant was moved to South Main and renamed Molina's Mexican City. Soon after that, Raul Molina opened several more locations, which were eventually called Molina's Cantina.
"The original recipes were very basic," Molina says, remembering that one early menu even featured Italian spaghetti. "Mama and Papa had their recipes, and later Santos (a long-term employee) came in. He trained me to cook. He was with us for more than 50 years. They'd collaborate, and things changed over the years. As we began to grow, you have to get standardized."
In the '70s the family began catering in response to repeated requests from customers. Unlike many restaurants that later launched catering arms, the Molinas never sought out that business. They began catering only after persistent inquiries from longtime customers and, eventually, presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who chose to have Molina's cater events in Houston.
"Catering is a big part of our business now," Molina says. "We do engagement parties, wedding parties, divorce parties — sometimes all in the same family. We go from cradle to grave."
Raul Molina Sr. sold the business to his sons and retired in 1977, and his family has continued to run the restaurants that made Molina a name in the Houston food scene. He remained a fixture at his restaurants, greeting customers at the door and checking on tables until the mid-1990s. Molina passed away in 2001 at the age of 91.
Today there are three Molina's Cantinas in Houston, all run by Raul Sr.'s grandsons, Raul III, Roberto and Ricardo. They're recognized for being among the first Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston as well as some of the best. Many of the employees stay with the company for decades because they love the food and the welcoming atmosphere of the place. Ricardo Molina says that one thing he's very interested in for the future is negotiating changes in the minimum wage and health care for his employees, who are family to him.
"I'm third-generation," he says proudly. "I remember people coming in here when they were kids, and now they're having kids. I know that we're serving four generations now. And if someone remembers an old recipe, I have cooks who remember it, too."
The first Goode Co. BBQ opened somewhat by accident. Jim Goode was a corporate graphic artist who had grown weary of being beaten down on prices after he'd already done the work for his advertising executive clients in the late 1970s. He had always loved fishing and cooking barbecue, so he thought he might want to do something with those skills.
"As fate would have it," his son, Levi Goode, says, "he came to this Goode Co. BBQ restaurant, which was the Red Barn Barbecue back in the '70s. The food wasn't good, but there weren't many options."
Jim Goode got to know the husband-and-wife team who owned the small restaurant, but one day when he went in for a late lunch, he noticed the wife manning the brisket and the register on her own. She said that her husband had passed away a few weeks earlier and she wasn't sure how she'd be able to run the business on her own. It was her husband's passion, not hers, and she longed to move back to where her family was in east Texas.
"And my dad said, 'That's interesting; I've been trying to figure out a way to get into the barbecue business,'" Levi Goode explains. "So while he ate his lunch, she sat down and they started talking. And it was pretty simple. He said, 'I've got $3,000 in savings, and I've got another $3,000 owed to me by the ad agency. And that's all I've got. Take it or leave it.' And she decided to take it. So she took off her apron and handed him her keys. Before he'd even finished his lunch, he was the new owner of a terrible barbecue restaurant."
Fortunately, Jim was really good at smoking brisket, and he enlisted the help of his uncle, Joe Dixie, in getting the restaurant started. Dixie had been a prisoner of war in Japan during WWII, and he'd become the cook for the soldiers and other POWs.
"In order to keep everything going, it was a 24/7 job," Levi says. "My dad and my uncle practically lived there. One of them would sleep on the picnic bench outside, and the other one would sleep near the pit on a cot or on a chest freezer. They had a loaded shotgun and an alarm clock, and they'd wake up every hour and check on the meat and stoke the fire and reload the wood."
Even with such dedication, business started off slow. Jim Goode would measure growth by how many bags of trash filled with paper plates he'd take out to the curb at night. By the time he was filling up half a dozen or more bags of trash each day, he decided it was time to look into opening another restaurant.
In 1983 Goode opened the Goode Co. Taqueria, which featured standards from his grandmother's kitchen and items cooked on a mesquite grill. There was an abandoned brick warehouse behind the taqueria that was turned into an office and test kitchen. Three years later the family borrowed some of what they'd learned with the taqueria and working with a mesquite grill and applied those techniques to Gulf Coast seafood at the first Goode Co. Seafood, on Westpark.
"My parents got divorced in the early years of the restaurant business," Levi Goode says. "It's hard. My sister and I ended up moving to southern Louisiana with my mother, and during that time we experienced a lot of Cajun festivals and famous restaurants from Lafayette to New Orleans and everywhere in between. So that's why you see things on our menu like gumbo and étouffée. The primary influence is Texas Gulf Coast seafood, but you also get Mexican and Cajun/Creole dishes as well."
During the next ten years, the Goodes opened another barbecue restaurant and the Barbeque Hall of Flame, a retail shop catering to all things barbecue. They also began shipping their now-famous pecan pies in the signature pine boxes.
By 2000 the Internet had begun to take over shopping, so Levi, now in business with his father, decided to move the barbecue store online and turn the former storefront into another restaurant. In 2003 the father-son team opened Armadillo Palace next to the original Goode Co. BBQ on Kirby, but it didn't have a name at first.
That was solved when Levi and his father came across a giant armadillo outside an antique store in Wyoming. They hauled it back to Texas, jazzed it up with some mosaic tiles and Armadillo Palace was born.
Levi Goode now owns the entire business on his own, and he's happy to keep the Goode name here in Houston.
"I wouldn't say we'll never leave Houston, but I think there are still opportunities in the city," he says. "We just finished a new commissary that also houses our e-commerce business with the test kitchen, so everything's under one roof. So we have a good foundation for really evaluating what's next."
The D'Amicos and The Petronellas
"Most of the Houston Italians are from Sicily," Brina D'Amico explains. "We're all sort of semi-related in some way. Everyone came from the same areas in Sicily and came in through the Port of Galveston."
Brina is the daughter of Nash D'Amico, owner of D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe, a Rice Village fixture since 1996. Today the two are partners in their restaurant company, but Nash started in the industry back in 1975.
He graduated from Sam Houston State University along with his cousins Tony and Damian Mandola, and the trio weren't quite sure what to do with themselves after college."They had business degrees and a couple of recipes," she says of her father's decision to open a restaurant. "I think they did it on a whim, and it was something they were all good at. And it evolved. It wasn't a driving passion where they'd been dreaming about it since childhood."
The cousins borrowed $2,000 from relatives and opened Damian's Fine Italian Food in Huntsville in 1975. The restaurant was a success, even though the boys didn't really know what they were doing.
"The first kitchen we had was so hot," Nash D'Amico recalls. "We made friends with David Tinsley of Tinsley's Fried Chicken in Huntsville, and one day he came into the kitchen and asked why it was so hot. We didn't know we needed an exhaust fan over the stove."
Encouraged by how well their first restaurant did in Huntsville, all three cousins moved back home to Houston, where D'Amico opened D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano in 1977 and the Mandolas went on to open their own restaurants.
From 1983 to 1992, D'Amico opened four more restaurants, all called Nash D'Amico's Pasta & Clam Bar: one in Rice Village, one on Westheimer, one in Galveston and one in Clear Lake.
In 1995 he decided he wanted to spend more time with his family and also get back to the small, family-style restaurants he likes best, so he closed the Pasta & Clam Bars and created D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe, which remains a popular eatery in Rice Village.
Around that time, Brina D'Amico entered the business, though, like her father, she says running a restaurant was never part of her plan.
"I didn't work for my dad until I was 18," she says. "I didn't want anything to do with it. I went to College Station for a year and didn't know what I was going to do, so I came back to Houston to study hotel and restaurant management thinking I'd do catering. Then I realized that catering is actually harder than the restaurant business. So I thought I'd give it a shot."
In 2011 the father-and-daughter team decided to partner with Hospitality USA Management Inc. (HUSA) to expand the D'Amico empire. They hope to open additional D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe locations throughout Houston with the help of HUSA, but the original in Rice Village remains family-owned.
"A lot of us are in the restaurant business," Brina D'Amico says. "The generation before us were all in the grocery business. And now it's going over to the next generation. You can't get away from it. It's in all of us."
Indeed, her cousin Paul Petronella of Paulie's remembers growing up in the kitchen of his uncle Nash's restaurants, playing with Brina, sleeping in the office and eating garnishes at the bar.
"Nash D'Amico and my two uncles, Charles and Frank Petronella, owned this full-service Italian restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby," Petronella says, referring to D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano. "So I've just always been around that kitchen scene. Dad would always come home smelling like the kitchen. Then my parents opened Paulie's in 1998."
After the success of the original Paulie's at Westheimer and Driscoll, Petronella's parents, father Bernard and stepmother Kathy, opened three more Paulie's restaurants starting in 2006 — one at Holcombe and Kirby, one on the north side of town off Louetta and one in Galveston.
After going to school to study advertising, Petronella came back to his roots and took over the Paulie's restaurants in 2009. He sold all of them except the original, on which he chose to focus his attention in an effort to improve the quality of the food and the overall experience.
"We've gone through some transformations," Petronella says. "When I took over, it had already been open ten years, and it had a following. The question was, how do you make it your own without pissing people off? So changes came really, really slow."
Paulie's is now a popular Italian restaurant that draws crowds of industry professionals who know they're going to get a great Italian meal out of Paul Petronella's kitchen. Last year he opened a wine bar, Camerata at Paulie's, expanding his empire beyond Italian food. He'd like to open an Italian market or something similar someday, but he says he doubts there will be any more Paulie's locations.
"This is the original," he says, "and we like it that way."
Pappas might just be the most famous name in Houston. In nearly every square mile inside the Loop, there's a Pappas restaurant to be found, and we can thank Pete and Jim Pappas and Jim's sons, Chris, Greg and Harris, for that.
The Pappas history actually began much earlier, though, with Pete and Jim's father, H.D. Pappas, who emigrated from Greece in 1897 and opened Greek restaurants in Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee. In 1946 Jim and Pete (and their two other brothers) moved to Houston from Dallas and began selling refrigeration equipment. During that time, Pete patented several types of commercial refrigeration equipment, some of which are still in use today. Eventually the refrigeration business led to a restaurant-supply business, but the brothers weren't happy merely selling to restaurants. They wanted to own one.
Dot Coffee Shop opened inside 610 off I-45 in 1967, and shortly thereafter the brothers ventured into the barbecue business with the Brisket House, now called Pappas Bar-B-Q. In 1970 Jim Pappas's sons joined the family business, eventually opening their first restaurant, the Strawberry Patch, which later became Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.
The Pappases were still involved in the refrigeration and restaurant supply company, though, and their work often brought them to the original Houston Don's, owned by the Landrys and Jim Gossen. The brothers learned a lot about Cajun-style Gulf seafood at Don's, where they would ask questions and pick up tips from Gossen and the Landrys.
In 1981 the Pappases opened the first Pappas Seafood House. Jim Pappas died the following year, and his sons built him a legacy by expanding the business at lightning speed. By 1989 the brothers had 25 restaurants in the greater Houston area, and began expanding into Dallas, Austin and, later, San Antonio. Pete Pappas remained involved until the late 1990s, when he stepped down as head of the company.
The original Strawberry Patch restaurant closed in 1993, and in its place the Pappas family built the first Pappas Bros. Steakhouse three years later. It joined the other Pappas ventures: Pappas Seafood House, Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Little Pappas Seafood House and Pappas Bar-B-Que.
Since then the Pappases have also opened Yia Yia Mary's and Pappas Burgers, as well as a successful catering company. Today there are 50 Pappas restaurants in Houston and dozens more throughout Texas and in Chicago and Atlanta.
The Pappases and fans of the restaurants credit the family's success to the large portions they serve and their ability to keep prices down and quality up. All the Pappas restaurants have established themselves as leaders in their respective genres — from the fresh seafood at the Seafood House to the great Texas barbecue at Pappas Bar-B-Q. Grandpa Pappas would be mighty proud.
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.