Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Nash D’Amico of D’Amico’s Market Café

Nash D’Amico has spend 40 years in Houston as a restaurateur. As we covered in Part 1 of our Chef Chat, his first restaurant was just outside Sam Houston State University. He has since gone on to open more than 11 restaurants. His oyster bars are no longer open, but D’Amico is back on an expansion track. He’s opened a second location of his long-running D’Amico’s Market Café in Katy and is partnering on a CityCentre location of Fellini Gelato and Caffé.

He’s not done yet, though. He and his daughter Brina are actively looking for a spot for a fine-dining establishment that will harken back to the days when he co-owned D'Amico's Ristorante Italiano.

EOW: Tell me about getting this place open. What was that like?

NA: It was kind of like coming back home. Remember we were talking about how I have been in the Rice Village area for a long time? We had actually closed the location down because they had to tear it down to build this what they call The Village.

EOW: The shopping center [in Rice Village] and all that.

NA: Yeah. They tore multiple blocks down — leveled it all to build shopping centers. So, we were gone from Houston and we had a place in Clear Lake with George Mitchell in Galveston. Maybe in the West end [of Galveston], too, I don't know. They all start to cross over.

But then I realized I didn't want to be driving to Galveston every day. I live right here in West University, and Brina was two when we moved there. I raised her by myself. Her mother and I divorced when she was two. We lived over there on Nottingham Street. I was going to Galveston getting sitters for her and taking her with me back and forth. So, I think, “You know, I want to be back in Rice Village.”

Of course, when we said that, then the people who were developing it said, "Of course we want you back." I already had a good reputation here. We love the location.

I was excited because I wanted to go back to the traditional style. It’s not that I didn't enjoy the pasta and clam bars. They were great and we did wonderful with them, but I wanted to go more to the traditional style.

I was trying to do something never been done before. I’d seen lots of Italian restaurants, lots of Italian delis and lots of Italian markets, but never have you seen them all together. I said, “I’m going to put them all together under one roof.” And everybody said, "No, that's not going to work."

So we did. We have a steam table where we put out about 12 to 15 items of our homemade stuff. You get three items. We started off at $5.95, $6.95, now we're at $8.95 and only because we had to.

EOW: I've been here for lunch before. I think it's a great deal.

NA: But you know we do 150 to 200 lunches. It's amazing. Italian restaurants don't typically do that many lunches. They’re big at nighttime. So that was what was so exciting about introducing a new style.

EOW: Do you think maybe the more casual environment encourages people to come in at lunchtime?

NA: I do, and I think the price point can get you to come in for lunch and it can get you to come in multiple times for dinner or lunch. There are so many restaurants and I love them. We all like those great restaurants, but it's $40 to $50 average ticket per person. This is not. We average about $20.

EOW: But you probably make up for it in volume because people will come.

NA: I want to be a value to our customers. I don't want them to have to pay that kind of money. I want to be of value without sacrificing any of the quality. We use the same or better ingredients that all the top-shelf restaurants do. I'm not looking for what Pecorino Romano I can buy at a good price. That's not what I want. I want the best Pecorino Romano. Then, whatever the cost is, we'll adjust it. I want the best. We always want the very best quality and be a value. I think this particular initiative has been successful and very popular because you can get people here and they can come more often.

EOW: I think you have some of the best meatballs in town.

NA: The meatballs we’ll put up against anybody's in the whole wide world. We really will.

EOW: They're the stuff of legends.

NA: We've won a contest with meatballs. Give us a meatball contest, we'll enter it and win it every time.

EOW: Let's say someone comes in here and has actually never been here before. What should that person order?

NA: I think they should come more than one time because there's multiple things to try. The spaghetti and meatballs is one thing. The lasagna is great. We have a Snapper D'Amico with and crab meat on it that is one of the most popular dishes, and I love it. It's very good.

We make our pastas from scratch. The girl making pasta back there has been with me 26 or 27 years, and her husband is around here somewhere, too. We make our own pastas. So, I think they should try our homemade pastas.

We've got crawfish ravioli that's out of this world. We’ve got a wild mushroom and walnut tortellini that's excellent. Our fettuccini are fresh and the pastas that go into the lasagna are fresh. Homemade pastas, that's really what we're all about. But we also have plenty of wonderful veal dishes — veal piccata, veal saltimbocca, veal marsala. We have chicken piccata. All the stuff that you will see in any high-end Italian restaurant, we do it at the same quality for a better price.

EOW: When did your daughter decide to become involved in the business?

NA: I think she was in a crib when we were building the store on the one over on Westheimer — D'Amico's Ristaurante Italiano. She was around it all of her life, but she didn't think that she wanted to be in it. You know how they are: "I don't want to be in that. I don't want to do it."

She went off to Bryan-College Station with her high school sweetheart, whom she later married, and she didn't care for it too much. We had been so close and I raised her by myself. She really wanted to come back home. So, she came back home and she went to the University of Houston. She was recruited by the Hilton Hotel and Restaurant School.

They said, "We'd like to have you in our school." So she got into the school and then when she got there, she knew everything and she just sailed through everything. She still didn't think she wanted to be in the restaurant, though, but she said, "I know this business and I just know everything about it."

She went to work with a dear friend of ours who I suggested: Elizabeth Stone of The Stone Kitchen (now Silver Stone Events). She's been around for a long time. [Briana] thought she was going to go and learn that catering business and event catering. When she was there for a couple of years, she realized, “This isn’t me.” She's been back here since.

She’s been back here since a year or so out of college. She's 38 now. I’ve got three granddaughters. We're also very involved in St. Anne's. I went to school there at St. Anne's and Brina went to school there. As a single parent, I took her there. So, we do a lot of cooking there. We do a lot of catering and everything at St. Anne's. All the three grandkids are girls.

EOW: How old are they?

NA: They are six, nine, 11, and sometimes they say, "Pappy, when can we start working in the restaurant business?"

EOW: Your 40th anniversary [in the restaurant business] is coming up. When exactly is that?

NA: It's June 16.

EOW: Are you doing anything special?

NA: I don’t know. I started out with Damian Mandola, and we've talked back and forth about it. We both know it's coming up and it's a big deal. He said, “We should do something,” and I said, “Yes, we should do something.” I talked to our PR people. We still got a couple of months, but we better start thinking about if we're going to do something. Surely, we're not going to let it just come and go.

EOW: Is there anything else that you would like for Houston Press readers to know, whether it be about your restaurant or about yourself?

NA: I know that the Houston Press readers are a wide range of people, but I would say the word “hip” fills a lot of that gap. They're very hip people. I don't know if we would fall into the hip area, but it's traditional food and I think there's always a place for traditional food. So, come on down.

EOW: I think that's good advice. Thank you.

NA: For somebody who's been around the restaurant business as long as I’ve been around here, there's a lot of progression going on. I admire all that. These guys are putting ingredients together that have never been put together before. Sometimes it depresses me and sometimes I say, "No, there's room for that." But there's also always room for tradition.

EOW: One thing they say a lot about this hipster trend is that it’s about authenticity. I can't imagine someone not being interested in authentic Italian food.

NA: That's it. We're authentic. You look up “authentic” in the dictionary, you're going to find D'Amico's restaurant right there. I think that's what the comments that come out of most people that come here, whether they're first-time and a lot of times out-of-town people. They think about the authentic Italian restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia or all over the country — even Europe as far as they'd go. I hear it said all the time of how authentic it is. There's nothing pretentious about it. It's just very comfortable.

EOW: You and your whole family are part of a very grand and revered Italian tradition in Houston. You're part of our fabric.

NA: We're so proud to be part of that. We really are. I don't know how it happened, but this generation of mine and Brina's generation has embraced the feeding of the people of Houston and they have embraced us back, too.

EOW: I'm glad you all landed in Galveston and not New Orleans. Thank you for the interview.

NA: You're quite welcome.
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook