Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Nash D'Amico of D'Amico's Market Café

Nash D’Amico is a member of one of Houston’s greatest Italian restaurant families. This marks his 40th year as a Houston-area restaurateur. His little cafe in Rice Village, with its red and white checkered tablecloths, turns 19 this year. His dishes, based on his family’s recipes, have become Houston classics that have kept diners coming through the doors all these years.

His long years in Houston’s restaurant scene have not tempered his dreams one bit. He has a relatively new second location in Katy that is doing quite well. He’s additionally a partner in a new endeavor in CityCentre on the west side of town.

D’Amico has another big plan in the works — to once again open a fine-dining establishment. In part 1 of our Chef Chat, we'll delve into how he got to where he is today and that aforementioned partnership. Come back tomorrow to learn more about the ins-and-outs of D'Amico's restaurant endeavors as well as what he thinks you should order if you've never visited before. 

EOW: Are you from Houston?

NA: I'm a native Houstonian.

EOW: Wow, not many of y'all around.

NA: That's right. I can remember Houston when we used to go to Galveston on the old Galveston Highway before it was the Gulf Freeway. So, I'm a native Houstonian.

In fact, my parents are native Houstonians. My grandparents came here as part of what I call the Houston Italians. We're all kind of related, and a lot of us are in the food business. Most of us came through from Sicily through Galveston in the late 1800s. We can't prove it because the great storm of 1900 came and wiped out all the records.

I would be a second-generation Sicilian. All four of my grandparents came here as infants or as children. They didn't know each other, but they all grew up together and married. So, that's why there's so many of us related.

EOW: Who were your grandparents?

NA: My father's side was Frank and Jenny D'Amico, and my mother's side was Charlie and Pauline Pizzitola, so good names.

EOW: So you're also related to the family that owns the barbecue place [Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue on Shepherd].

NA: Yes, we're all related.

EOW: That's amazing. When did you first become interested in food and cooking?

NA: In my college years, I was more into math, numbers and business. My degree is in business administration with an emphasis on marketing. I thought I was going to go into the real estate business or something like that.

When I got out of college, I went to work for another cousin. It was Vallone Real Estate back then and I thought I was going to be in the real estate business. Houston has its ups and downs and that particular time real estate sales were really depressed. Next thing I knew, we were searching around for a place to open a little Italian restaurant.

We went to school in Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. I had just graduated and I still had a cousin up there. We went and looked around and found a little place on Sam Houston Avenue. It was $300 a month so we just could afford the rent. I remember we had a few hundred dollars apiece and we went to our parents and borrowed $1,000 apiece. I think we started with $2,500.

We cleaned it and painted it all up. [My daughter] Brina's mother, to whom I was married at the time, was good with sewing and helping out. So three of us, Damian Mandola, myself and Melba, my wife at the time, fixed up this little place at 1605 Sam Houston Avenue. We started cooking in the kitchen and our mothers came up there and our grandparents had some input, too. Mostly, though, our mothers came up and stirred the pots and made the secret sauce.

Actually, we thought we were just going to be a sandwich and pizza place. But with restaurants, the walls talk to you and they tell you what to do. So, it was just a matter of a few months and we were a full-service restaurant.

EOW: What was the name of that place?

NA: It was called Damian's Fine Italian Food in Huntsville, Texas. It was on Sam Houston Avenue which was right at the entrance of the Sam Houston State University.

We didn't know what we were doing. In fact, we had an exhaust hood in the kitchen but we didn't know you were supposed to have an exhaust fan to take the heat out.

EOW: Oh no! “We have a vent hood. What’s going on?” (laughs)

NA: It sure was hot in that kitchen! (laughs) We were just kind of learning as we were going. We were in a small town. It was not like we had to compete with the big boys at the time. So, we could kind of stumble as we were learning.

Our mothers were there helping us with the food. It was the food that we had eaten all of our lives. It was then just reproducing it for the general public.

We made a friend with a reporter who was at Channel 13. His name is David Glodt. He's still around by the way. He's the producer of the Houston Rodeo now. He was a reporter back then and he decided to do a story on us. He put it on right after the Olympics.

So, they ended the Olympics and the closing ceremonies and then comes on our restaurant. That kind of put us on the map. It probably wasn't even a year-and-a-half later that we had an opportunity to open in Houston, which we had wanted to eventually do. That was our home. That's where we were from.

We got an SBA [Small Business Administration] loan. It was $75,000—something very reasonable—and we opened a restaurant on Westheimer near Kirby. It's where Shanghai River is right now.

EOW: Okay. I know exactly where that is.

NA: The Avalon Drug store is in that strip center. It was owned by Billy Hale. It was a brand-new center. We built from the ground up and it was called D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano. So, we had stepped up.

We were more formal. We were coat and tie, white table cloth—

EOW: Full service.

NA: Very formal. We had a concert pianist in there playing piano. That's probably where we made our claim to fame. That's really where we really got put on the map.

EOW: About what year is this?

NA: That would've been about 1977 or 1978.

That was a really a very nice restaurant. We really were very well received by the city of Houston. We were probably the Italian restaurant in town you go to. So that was really good.

EOW: How long did you stay there?

NA: That restaurant was there for about 12 to 15 years. That's where we started to fall apart as partners. It starts to feel like a marriage, kind of.

EOW: Or roommates.

NA: Yeah, whatever it is. Your friends tell you, “You don't need that one,” or “You can do this on your own.” It started to deteriorate. I had another first cousin over there, Charles Petronella and we had Tony Rao, another cousin. So there were the four of us and it started to deteriorate. It's a shame because it was a beautiful and lovely restaurant—a wonderful restaurant.

EOW: Is Mr. Petronella Paul’s dad? (Author’s note: Paul Petronella owns Paulie’s and is a co-owner of Camerata as well.)

NA: He is Paul’s uncle. Paul's dad is Bernard. He's my other first cousin. Charles and Bernard are brothers and I went into business with Charles.

It wound up where Damian and I went away from it. Damian opened up Damian's downtown and I went and opened up Nash D'Amico's Pasta and Clam Bar. It was very popular. We were right here on Times Boulevard.

It was kind of the first of the real casual concepts. It was really art deco and had a big bar.

EOW: So, you've been in Rice Village for a while.

NA: I've been around Rice Village for a long time. I actually grew up on Bissonnet Street.

EOW: Wow. This is your neighborhood.

NA: Yeah. This has been my neighborhood. We opened up before the Village was popular because it had a lot of dark streets..

[Nash D'Amico's Pasta and Clam Bar] was very popular—real cool. It was art deco, like Miami Vice. It was a clam bar. It was an Italian restaurant but it was something like you would see northeast of the New York area. They do a lot of clams and introduce seafood to Italian food.

Actually, I had several of the Italian pasta and clam bars. Then I got hooked up with George Mitchell who was a wonderful man. He was a wonderful mentor. He was so helpful in so many ways for me. I did a few restaurants with him in Galveston. We did a pasta and clam bar out at Westheimer and Chimney Rock.

EOW: Wow, you were a busy, busy man.

NA: Yeah, we did quite a few. I did those for many years. I think I had four or five pasta and clam bars.

EOW: That's funny, because John Watt over at Prego also encountered Mr. Mitchell at some point in his career.

NA: He and I worked together for a while.

EOW: Oh my gosh. I didn't know!

NA: George Mitchell was my partner but he had brought John Watt here to run the kitchen at the Tremont Hotel in Galveston. One of the perks of being with George Mitchell is I had a nice suite up in the Tremont. I was with John Watt in that circle. [Mitchell] was incredible. John Watt, that was his beginning days there and he has gone on to do wonderful things on his own.

So we had another pasta and clam bar in Clear Lake. We did a little Italian restaurant out on the west end. Mr. Mitchell had to have one out there. There weren't a lot of people out there at Pirate’s Cove and all of that.

Then I decided to go into the next phase, which is more back to tradition. That's what [D’Amico’s Italian Market Café] is—just a neighborhood Italian restaurant. It's very authentic—nothing fancy. It's just a comfortable, neighborhood Italian restaurant. We get people in here four or five times a week.

EOW: This is your only place now?

NA: No. Now I have new partners who are wonderful people. They are two guys, Larry Martin and Edgar Carlson, who own Hospitality USA. They have a big company. They're a little more corporate. Of course I'm more from the mom-and-pop world. My daughter and I have always been run this like a mom-and-pop.

When [my daughter] Brina and I decided we were going to expand, we thought after this we would do a few of these. Then, we might redo D'Amico's—the more formal one. That's still in the making. We still want that to happen.

EOW: Okay, good to know.

NA: We still want to do that. We want that to be our flagship and we will do that with Larry and Edgar because they want it too.

They own Local Pour. It's very popular right now. They have Baker Street, Watson, Sherlock—their background is a little bit more on the spirits side.

EOW: Yeah. They just opened the new local Local Pour in The Woodlands.

NA: Yeah. It's just doing great business. Together, we have a restaurant. We actually opened up one in the heights. We were there for two years. It didn't do what we wanted to do. The parking wasn't right so we closed that one and we concentrated on building a new one. We’ve been in business there a year and a half now. It’s at Cinco Ranch in La Centerra and is a fabulous restaurant.

It's the next generation. It's bigger and it's got a great location. We probably have the best location in [La Centerra]. We like it very much out there. The Katy people are very educated and well-versed in food and well-travelled, so it's a good clientele. When went to Huntsville Italian food wasn't so well-known, but these are well-educated, sophisticated palates and they know good food.

EOW: I have friends in Katy that get tired in having to drive inside the Loop to find good food. So, they're thrilled with these new restaurant openings.

NA: Yeah. We're very happy to be out there. We really want to do one of those again in The Woodlands.

EOW: Where would your flagship restaurant be?

NA: It would be inner Loop—inside the city.

EOW: So, inside the Loop but you don't know quite where your preference would be yet?

NA: No. We're looking.

EOW: Real estate is tough right now.

NA: It is, but we'll find the right thing.

[My daughter] Brina and I have partnered up on a gelato and coffee shop under construction at CityCentre.

EOW: Is that Fellini Caffè?

NA: Fellini Gelato and Caffè. They have one over here. I'm not part of that. But those owners and I are opening up the Fellini Gelato and Caffè at City Centre. So, that's going to be fun. That's a great market too.

Salvador Albedice is his name. He sold Damian and I our very first espresso cappuccino machine. He's a young waiter at some Italian restaurant and he called back to Italy and got them to send it. We want to buy it. Now he is the go-to guy for espresso cappuccino machine. If you got to open a coffee shop or gelato he's the guy you go to. So Brina and I are very happy to be with Ms. Salvador Monica, that's his right hand and we're going to do this one in City Center.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook