The Other Mandola's

Poor me. I drove by Mandola's Deli for eight years without stopping. And no wonder: the blank brick facade of this windowless East End lunch spot seems hooded. Inscrutable. Grimly closed off. Inside, however, waits a knotty-pine universe bustling with shirtsleeved regulars and bursting with old-school surprise. Food snobs and trendmongers should stay away; Mandola's is light-years from the fashionable world of arugula and asiago. But anyone with a taste for the kitchen-table Italiana of more innocent times will take one bite of the classic meatball poorboy and know they're home.

Proprietors Frank and Margie Mandola are cousins to Houston's more famous Mandola boys: Tony of Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Seafood and the new Mandola's Family Table; Vincent of Nino's and Vincent's; and Damian, founder of Damian's and current Carrabba's executive. While their relatives mined the lucrative, upscale restaurant market on Houston's west side, Frank's branch of the family plied a more modest East End turf -- home ground to many successful Italian food guys, from Tony Vallone on down. To partake of the deeply satisfying, unaffected fare at this splendid relic of a deli is to understand the roots of their tribal zest for big, big flavors and warmly comforting textures. It's like visiting the revelatory Hall of Bones at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History: suddenly, everything under the sun makes sense.

The substance that snaps everything into focus is Mandola's proudly retrograde tomato sauce: smooth, unrepentant seas of the stuff, peppery-tart and oniony and garlicky, with a lightning bolt of old-fashioned dried oregano and an afterburn that lights up sequential sectors of your mouth and lips. It works wonders on that meatball poorboy -- aiding and abetting the pale, ingratiating little meatballs, which return the favor by providing a serious, dimension-boosting platform for the sauce. That's what symbiosis is all about. An unusually tart, flavorful mozzarella chimes in, in molten form, and Houston's storied poorboy buns -- from the same Royal bakery that supplies Antone's -- complete the picture. At $3.40 (or $3.15 on special), this sandwich is one helluva bargain.

As are many of Mandola's homey specialties. I am addicted to the unpretentious eggplant parmesan, a $4.40 plate that encompasses a major, melting slab of eggplant cushioned in lots of deliciously pillowy breading, oceans of tomato sauce, funky spaghetti and gloriously nasty garlic toast with which to mop it all up. What's really fun is to moosh up the crumbly eggplant breading with the spaghetti, which yields a Sicilian bread-crumb effect. Al Dente? They never heard of him here, and I couldn't care less. The fact that you eat this glorious mishmash on a sagging paper plate only adds to its appeal.

I'm equally enamored of Mandola's spinach lasagna, a quarter-acre square layered with plenty of leafy greens and soft ricotta, swamped in that riveting tomato sauce, and -- blessedly -- not pinned down by a smothering mantle of melted cheese. Anyone who could taste this stuff without smiling is an irredeemable grinch. Same goes for the chicken Patronella, a breaded and slightly crunchy breast of bird slathered with that lively, melted mozzarella and tons (are you surprised?) of the house tomato sauce. After eating this throwback, I inscribed the following words in my notebook: "Yum, yum, yum!"

You can have that same chicken tucked into a poorboy with more of that insidious mozzarella, and it will make you happy. You can order one of the house poorboys -- assemblages of thick-cut ham, salami, cheese, excelsior-style lettuce and tomato with forthright pickles and a spiced-mayo dressing -- and come away well satisfied, especially when the sandwiches are heated, which adds exponentially to their appeal. The sausages here, I am sorry to say, are of the excessively dense, excessively fenneled and excessively salty kind -- there are better Italian sausages to be had in this town, and Mandola's ought to acquire them.

We must speak of the spaghetti and meatballs, if only because of the Joe Matranga's gap that has afflicted Houston for the past several years. Sauce, yes; meatballs, yes; pasta, no ... unfortunately. Mandola's boils its spaghetti to an overdone turn; if it were less squishy, this could be the Matranga's replacement that many Houstonians have longed for. Keep looking, or praying.

Unless, of course, you adopt the Mandola's Strategy that has transformed the reclusive, stay-at-home portions of my life. When I feel a bout of cocooning coming on, I buy a pound of Mandola's already-cooked meatballs (15-count-em-15 spheres!) and a quart of their tomato sauce to go. I make sure I have on hand a quarter-round of the Empire Bakery's pane paisano, double-wrapped in aluminum foil and frozen, and some respectable greens, preferably the field-salad mixture from Whole Foods Market. A bottle of Andre's vinaigrette, from the old-fashioned Swiss patisserie on Westheimer, doesn't hurt. Put all this together (you can add your own al dente noodles for support, although they are not strictly necessary) and you have one of the city's supremely satisfying dinners-in-a-flash.

The deli stuff here comprises some old chestnuts (iceberg-based chef's salad with a respectable vinaigrette) and some true Texas artifacts -- as in picnic-style deviled eggs at a reasonable 35 cents per, and pickled-jalapeno boats of sweetened pimento cheese, a regional hors d'oeuvre from the mid-'80s. Think Mom. Think Sunday in the park. Throw in a piece of the swooningly wonderful chocolate sheet cake, frosted with fudge and pecans, or a handful of the elegant sesame-seeded biscotti baked by Frank Mandola's mother.

If there's a shortcoming to Mandola's, it's that its life affirming pleasures are only available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. I work around it.

My chief pleasure in Mandola's, other than the lively staples, is the sense of place that it provides. In a town glutted with ambitious Italian joints that seem to have been spun from high-tech marketing plans, Mandola's is an oasis of reality: there's a there there. Guys who look as if they might coach an athletic team congregate here of a noon hour, along with a Rainbow Coalition of UH students from just down the pike, and warehouse-district loyalists from the industrial zone nearby, plus an elderly Italian couple or two easing into the old neighborhood. Nobody cares that Mandola's doesn't take credit cards, or that its life ends in mid-afternoon, or that its only concession to the world of the vine is baby bottles of Bolla Valpolicella stashed in a refrigerated cooler.

In this corner of Houston, perfumed by the Rainbo Bakery across the street and the Maxwell House coffee plant down the pike, Mandola's is an institution, an amenity, a boon.

Forget fashion and enjoy it.

Mandola's Deli, 4105 Leeland, 223-5186.

Mandola's Deli: meatball poorboy, $3.40; eggplant parmesan, $4.40; deviled egg, 35 cents.


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