For 30 years, Damian's Cucina Italiana in Midtown has served upscale Italian-American food in a luxurious atmosphere to Houston diners. Below, co-owners Bubba Butera and Frank Mandola and general manager Johnny Mandola talk about the restaurant's history, who dines there and whether a restaurant like Damian's can survive in the age of more contemporary restaurants that constantly change their menus.
Also worth noting is the restaurant's legacy as part of the Mandola family's prominence in the Houston restaurant scene. The restaurant's five original partners are responsible for restaurants such as Carrabba's, Nino's, Vincent's, Ciro's and the Rajin' Cajun.
Why are you celebrating this occasion?
Bubba: We're excited about 30 years, because, in this industry, to get to 30 years is a hell of an accomplishment. And to get there with almost 40% of your original employees is really a hell of a long-time accomplishment. And to keep so many long-time customers like your parents and you is a third part of the equation. That's what makes us excited.
Frank: This restaurant is our life. We're celebrating 30 years of our lives, our kids lives. Our grandkids being born and celebrating here, rehearsal dinners being celebrated here. Our customers, our families, it's part of our life.
John: Thirty years is a great feat. We want to get the story out again. I think it's a tremendous story. It's a Houston landmark. There's so much history. Everybody that works here understands our passion and our philosophy. The way we do our business here is the way we live our lives. We treat others the right way. We take care of our employees. That's why they've been here so long. The customers that come here, they get it.
In Houston there's tons of restaurants opening, sometimes customers don't get treated the way we treat them here. It's strictly business for them. We're in it to make money, but it's a lifestyle. We're all a big family. It's not just grind, grind, grind. It's one big family.
I know Damian's not involved anymore.
Frank: Only with his heart. We talk all the time. He talks to Boo-boo, our chef, all the time. If something doesn't taste exactly the way it used to, Boo-boo will talk to Damian and figure out how to fix it. He doesn't have ownership, but his heart's here. I can tell you that right now.
This morning we talked about it. We started out originally. Damian painted this masterpiece. The financial partners were his brother Vincent (Mandola), cousin Ciro Lampasas, big Johnny Carrabba and myself. After about two, three years, Damian bought our interest out. After a few more years, he saw the trend in the country going to more casual. That's when he came up with the concept of Carrabba's. In order to go national, he needed to disassociate any of his financial interest in this restaurant. That's when he approached Bubba and myself. We've been here 21 years out of the 30. It's deceptive. I think, we took it over a few years ago, (but it) was 21 years ago.
John: Our chef, he likes to go by Napoleon, but we call him Boo-boo. His name is Napoleon Palacios. It'll be his 29th year here. He started as a dishwasher. He trained Johnny Carrabba. He trained Ciro Lampasas. Chef Bryan Caswell worked here as a bartender. That got him interested in the business.
There's so much history. It's a fun story to tell.
How much has the food changed over the years?
Frank: I'll tell you this. I relate it to a masterpiece being painted by Damian. Our job is to keep that masterpiece basically the same.
Bubba: We've added only two items that were not on the original menu. That's a filet and a ribeye because of the demand.
John: Talking to some of the other bloggers who have asked me the same type of questions, we don't like to see places open and close, but sometimes these places close before we even have a chance to try them. We're proud of ourselves for keeping this menu the same 30 years.
Frank: We have specials every week. That's where we can play around.
Bubba: If we have a special that everybody seems to like and we talk about adding it to the menu, we send it to Damian who fine tunes it at his house, sends us a recipe back and then we'll put it on the menu. That's a long, 18-month process. It doesn't happen overnight. It's got to be a popular special in order to get that treatment.
Do you feel the need to compete with newer, more Italian, as opposed to Italian-American restaurants like Da Marco?
Bubba: He's in his own world. We're in our own world.
John: You're still competing in that you have to keep everything consistent and take care of everybody.
Bubba: He's a great chef. How many does that place seat, about 50?
Yeah, I think so. How many people does this place seat?
Frank: We can sit 150 downstairs, and there's a private room upstairs that seats 150.
How many covers do you do on a Saturday night?
Frank: From 250 to 320.
From that perspective this place is still rocking and rolling.
Frank: We had 118 at lunch today (a Wednesday).
Bubba: They do a lot of business here.
This is a real power lunch spot, isn't it? Do people still wear ties here?
Bubba: All our attorneys dress to the tens. I found out when they don't have court or a client coming in they can dress casually. Oil and gas people are the same way. Bankers naturally are in suits. Insurance are in suits. It depends on what's going on with them.
Do certain customers have certain waiters?
John: Certain tables, certain waiters.
Bubba: In the evening, you couldn't sit here, I couldn't sit here.
John: Armando's section, they know on Fridays one family sits at table 19, their friends sit at table 20. They all know that back there. They've been doing it for years.
Frank: Every Saturday a doctor and his wife right here at table 17. You don't give that table away after 7:00 p.m.
What's the biggest benefit of a staff that's been here so long?
Bubba: It makes life easy. We don't have to train people.
Frank: Joe Torre comes in here: American League, National League, working for the league office, all these years. He knows when he comes here the linguine and clams will be the same year in and year out. It's the same guy that makes it.
Bubba: The president of Blue Bell retired a few years ago. Everybody had to drive down from Brenham. His only request was he wanted to furnish the dessert. They must have sent 100 gallons of all kinds of ice cream. We had a ball with it.
Who would you say are your best customers?
Frank: Lunch regulars.
John: Or lunch regulars who have retired and become dinner regulars.
Do you ever worry that people who are my age (34) don't have the same respect for a place like this?
John: Absolutely. We talk about it all the time.
Bubba: There's gonna come a time, we're too old to see it, but you're not. Your old-time waiter is going to be a thing of the past. I don't see that many coming up.
John: After we shut down the State Grille
Frank: (Interrupts) Sold the property. That was a hell of a deal. We didn't go out of business.
John: I left the family and worked at Perry's in Sugar Land. It was totally different.
Frank: It's amazing. The younger age they're used to loud, the "hi, my name is Sam. I'll be your waiter today" all that stuff. When they come here, the ones that are starting to get familiar with it, they do love it. They like being treated the right way. They enjoy a waiter who knows the menu. They might come here for dinner the first few times. Then they come for lunch with business associates. They really enjoy the way they get treated.
Bubba: Hi, my name is Sam. I'll be your waiter today. Would you like to try some Pinot Grigio for $9 a glass? We don't do that here. (laughs)
People are allowed to be on their own timetable here.
Frank: You can sit here at 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon. You can still be here at 9:30. We're not going to say a word. We're thinking about it sometimes but we're not going to say a word. We're not going to bother you.
This restaurant has become a part of people's lives. That's the big thing.
Frank: I hear it all the time. "We got engaged here and we come back to celebrate our anniversary every year." It's pretty neat.
Johnny Mandola and chef Napoleon Palacios [Photo credit: Jack Thompson]