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The First Families of Houston Food: Why We Eat the Way We Eat in H-Town

Mama Ninfa and her grandson, Domenic Laurenzo.
Mama Ninfa and her grandson, Domenic Laurenzo.
Photo courtesy Laurenzo's

Houston is a town inundated with great restaurants, but in tracing the city's history, you discover that many of the big names in the restaurant industry are related to each other in some way, whether by blood or business.

Some families have continued to stick with their own, too, but to live and cook in Houston is to be influenced by all the disparate cultures and flavors around you. This is how we get the major Italian families creating restaurants, each with a unique nod to their Houston roots. This is how we get the subtle Tex-Mex influences sneaking into Churrascos and the Latin influences popping up at Molina's.

And this is why the restaurants that dominate the Houston food scene today are here. This is why we eat Cajun food and fajitas and plantain chips and truffles. This is why we have fewer large chain restaurants than other cities of our size. And it's part of what makes the Houston dining scene so exciting.

The churrasco steak made Michael Cordúa famous.
The churrasco steak made Michael Cordúa famous.
Photo courtesy Churrascos

The Cordúas Patriarch Michael Cordúa came to the United States from Nicaragua in the 1970s to study economics and finance at Texas A&M University. He taught himself to cook because he missed the food of his home country.

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, but after it was listed in Esquire magazine's "Best New Restaurants in America" in 1989 people began to take notice of the 130-seat Latin American joint.

In 1990, Cordúa opened a second, larger Churrascos and emphasized the namesake churrasco meat that Cordúa 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 opened Américas, which was named restaurant of the year by Esquire in 1993. From there, Cordúa, along with his son David, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris, opened Amazon Grill, Artista and more Churrascos. The newest one opened in Gateway Memorial City in the late fall of 2013.

The family also came out with a cookbook this past year. It features 99 recipes, many of which helped make the restaurants famous. There are also some new recipes included, which David says are indicative of the continuing evolution of the Cordúa restaurants and the directions the family will be going in the future.

 

Nash D'Amico and his daughter, Brina.
Nash D'Amico and his daughter, Brina.
Photo courtesy D'Amico's

The D'Amicos/Mandolas/Petronellas It's one big Italian family of restaurateurs and chefs! Since coming to the United States, various members of the family have been involved in the food industry in one way or another, from Tony Mandola's grandfather, who was a grocer during World War I, to Nash D'Amico, who has been operating restaurants for the past four decades.

In an article published in the Austin Chronicle, 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 grocery store into Mandola's Deli, which is still open on Leeland Street in East Downtown.

D'Amico opened his first restaurant, Damian's Fine Italian Food, in Huntsville in 1975 with his cousins, Tony and Damian Mandola, who had borrowed $2,000 from relatives to make the pizzeria a reality. The success of Damian's encouraged the cousins to move to Houston, where D'Amico opened D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano in 1977 and the Mandolas opened Tony Mandolaʼs Blue Oyster Bar in 1982.

Tony Mandola and his wife, Phyllis.
Tony Mandola and his wife, Phyllis.
Photo by Geri Maria Harris

From 1983 to 1992, D'Amico opened four 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. During this time, Damian Mandola and his cousin, Frankie B., opened Damian's Cucina Italiana and Tony Mandola opened Tony Mandola's. Both Mandola restaurants remain open today.

D'Amico reconfigured his empire in 1996, though. He decided he wanted to spend more time with his family, so he closed the Pasta & Clam Bars and created D'Amico's Italian Market and Cafe, which remains a Rice Village fixture.

Paul Petronella stands in his namesake restaurant, Paulie's.
Paul Petronella stands in his namesake restaurant, Paulie's.
Photo by Mai Pham

It was around this time that the Petronella's came in. Paul Petronella remembers spending a lot of time as a child in the kitchens of his cousin, Nash D'Amico. These early years in a kitchen setting instilled in him a desire to be a part of the restaurant industry.

In a chef chat, Petronella described this period of his life:

"Nash D'Amico and my two uncles, Charles and Frank Petronella, owned this full-service Italian restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby. So I've just always been around that kitchen scene. Dad would always come home smelling like the kitchen. Then, my parents opened this place, Paulie's, in 1998."

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 Petronella's kitchen. Last year, Petronella opened the wine bar Camerata at Paulie's, expanding his empire beyond Italian food.

This story continues on the next page.

 

The Laurenzos

Mama Ninfa outside her restaurant.
Mama Ninfa outside her restaurant.
Photo courtesy Ninfa's

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 established Ninfa's restaurant in the front of the tortilla factory. Using loans from a friend in Mexico, Ninfa was able to open a 40-seat restaurant that almost succumbed to a fire a week after opening. But Ninfa rallied, and the restaurant in the bad part of town became known for its cheap, hearty Tex-Mex and its ever-welcoming owner and hostess.

It was the fajitas that initially made Ninfa -- 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 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 themselves from 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 counter-sued, 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 -- 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.

Mama Ninfa's legacy lives on through El Tiempo.
Mama Ninfa's legacy lives on through El Tiempo.
Photo courtesy El Tiempo

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, in which Ninfa may "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...," the Laurenzos 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.

Still, El Tiempo thrived, and it now has five locations throughout 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 El Tiempo and all the fajitas in Texas. As a sidenote, Ninfa's daughter, Phyllis, married Tony Mandola, so now the Laurenzos and Mandolas are related as well.

 

Raul and Mary Molina
Raul and Mary Molina
Photo courtesy Molina's Cantina

The Molinas Raul Molina, Sr., came to Houston from Nueva 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, Molina married Mary Sarabia, and the two of them begansaving money to open their own restaurant. By 1941, his American dream became a reality, and he opened the Old Monterrey Restaurant at 1919 West Gray. According to the biography on the Molina's Cantina website, 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 he opened several more locations, which were eventually called Molina's Cantina.

Raul Molina, Sr. retired in 1977, but 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. They're recognized for being some of the first Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston, and they were favorites of former president George H. W. Bush. The Houston Press has awarded the restaurant best Tex-Mex several times, thanks in large part to the family atmosphere at Molina's, where employees stay on for decades because they love the place so much.

This story continues on the next page.

 

This is the kind of cooking that breeds longevity.
This is the kind of cooking that breeds longevity.
Photo courtesy Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

The Pappas 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 Jim Pappas and his sons, Chris, Greg and Harris, for that. The elder Pappas opened Dot Coffee Shop in 1967, and his sons soon started working there and learning the trade. About a decade after that, the Landrys and Jim Gossen opened the original Houston Don's and introduced Cajun-style gulf seafood to Houston. That same year, 1976, Chris and Harris Pappas opened their first restaurant, the Strawberry Patch, but their refrigeration company business often brought them to Don's, where they would ask questions about seafood and pick up tips from Gossen and the Landrys.

In 1981, the Pappases opened the first Pappas Seafood House. Jim 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.

The original Strawberry Patch restaurant closed in 1993, and in its place the Pappas family built the first Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. It joined the other Pappas ventures, Pappas Seafood House, Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Little Pappas Seafood House and Pappas Bar-B-Q.

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.

All of 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.

This story continues on the next page.  

Tony Vallone (right) in the Ciao Bello kitchen with chef Bobby Matos.
Tony Vallone (right) in the Ciao Bello kitchen with chef Bobby Matos.
Photo courtesy Ciao Bello

The Vallones Many people know Tony Vallone for his eponymous Italian powerhouse, Tony's, as well as Ciao Bello and the new steakhouse, Vallone's. Fewer remember the Vallone Restaurant Group's Los Tonyos, Anthony's, La Griglia (still open, but no longer run by Vallone), Grotto and a previous incarnation of Vallone's.

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 1972, Vallone 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.

In the '90s, Vallone opened Vallone's, a high-priced steakhouse, followed shortly thereafter by La Griglia and two Grottos locations. Eventually, Vallone's merged with Anthony's after the latter lost its lease. The hybrid concept never really took off, so the steakhouse closed in 2002. 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 and both Grottos, leaving Vallone with only Tony's.

After some time spent making Tony's the best it could be, Vallone threw his hat into the ring again, opening Ciao Bello in 2009. The casual Italian restaurant wasn't an immediate hit, but 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 Cafe Bello and Ciao Bello. He remains involved in Ciao Bello and Tony's.

In late 2013, Vallone opened Vallone's along with Scott Sulma, the general manager and partner, and Grant Gordon, the executive chef and another partner in the restaurant. It's not an exact replica of the original Vallone's, but it does attempt to recreate some of the atmosphere that made Vallone's enticing.

All of these families remain strong presences in Houston today, some of them after more than 100 years serving the community. And what's even more impressive is that these generations of cooks and restaurateurs have remained here in the Bayou City even after failures, losses and defeats, only to pick themselves up and start all over.

It's thanks to them that we have Tex-Mex, and crawfish and some of the best Italian cuisine in Texas. It's because of these culinary pioneers that we have such a diverse and lively food scene in a city that, for years, was recognized for little more than oil.

So next time you're in a Pappas restaurant or one of the Laurenzo family's places, take a minute to appreciate the history that led to this moment. And then, dig in.

[Editor's note: There are 264 McDonald's restaurants in the Houston area. This article originally stated that there are 25 McDonald's restaurants in Houston.]


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