Strong Mandola Family Tree Grows Rich Restaurant Legacy
It may have been three decades ago, but Vincent Mandola still has vivid memories of standing at the window of Nino’s on West Dallas and watching for the sign of car lights coming down the then-lonely stretch of road.
“Everybody to your stations,” he says he would yell every time lights appeared. He was shouting to three other people in an otherwise empty restaurant. “Then we would all stand there as the car drove on past.”
It’s a bit different today. Reservations are almost always necessary for the greatly expanded Nino’s each of the six days a week it is open. It’s the same story for the larger Vincent’s next door and the expansive Grappino’s ‘small bites’ bar and patio directly behind. And where Vincent and his wife Mary were renting the space for Nino’s on the first floor of an old general store (renters still lived in rooms upstairs), the family now owns all but a few lots on the entire city block.
The 2800 Block of West Dallas is now surrounded by apartments and condominiums, and no one would stand more than a few seconds waiting for a car to come by. What’s more, a lot of those cars now stop at one of the Mandola’s three dining spots in this well-landscaped Italian park. (And what other restaurant family actually owns an entire city block on the edge of downtown?)
It was November 23, 1977, that Vincent and his wife, Mary, joined up with his brother and sister-in-law, Tony and Phyllis Mandola, to open Nino’s. They named it after Vincent and Tony’s father. From the launching, daughters Vinceanne who was 9 at the time and Dana who was 7, found themselves helping out. Of course, with a constant flow of relatives coming in to check out the venture and not an overwhelming number of paying customers, the early days were more like extended family dinners than the start of a restaurant empire.
Tony and Phyllis later left Nino’s to begin their own restaurants, and that left Vincent, Mary and their daughters to totally merge restaurant time and family time into what has made shining successes of both. They later purchased an ice house/motor cycle bar next door to begin Vincent’s, then more land behind them to begin Grappino’s di Nino and eventually all but a few lots on the entire near-Downtown block where they have created a small Italian compound. A little more than two years ago, the now-grown daughters formed a partnership and opened the family’s first casual Italian concept, Pronto, located a few blocks east on Montrose. They opened a second Pronto in Bellaire this past summer.
While have a restaurant for 30 years is quite an accomplishment in itself, the fact that five restaurants are all still firmly rooted to same family tree is especially unique.
The Mandola lording over the kitchen will still be Vincent, recognizable by his familiar white hair and beard and sharp, sharp sense of wit. The genius behind the decor, design and warmth will be Mary, slender, refined and uncannily observant. And taking the reins at the two bustling Pronto’s are the next generation – daughters Vinceanne Mandola Green and Mary Dana Corbett, certainly combinations of their talented parents.
Like ingredients in the perfect recipe, each in this has a strong personality, an opinion and plenty to contribute, but the resulting positive energy when they are together is a wonder to feel. At home or at meals, the talk is constant, mixing business and family as though each time is a rare get-together. Food, wine and laughter – all mixed well with advice for the business, suggestions for the cook and lots of good-natured kidding – gives these gatherings a Hollywood script.
Of, course, a lot of families have businesses. A lot of businesses support families. Yet somehow the Mandolas have so perfectly blended the two they’ve created what tritely can be called a legacy.
Or just the grandest family tree in the forest.