Restaurant meets grocery store, with a splash of wine
It was a visit to New York that inspired Damian Mandola to open a new restaurant concept reminiscent of food markets in New York City’s Italian district.
Mandola loved the market feel but said he knew a market alone would not be able to get enough traffic—many of the goods he carries can also be found at Whole Foods and Central Market—so he opened a market and restaurant all under one roof.
“I looked at—what are Italy’s treasures gastronomically? Well, it’s their cheeses and meats, it’s their coffee and pastries and gelato, and it’s their olive oils and vinegars and balsamic vinegars and pasta, of course. I just brought all of Italy’s treasures and made a little store for people to come buy it,” Mandola said.
The first Mandola’s Italian Market opened in Central Austin at The Triangle in 2006, with a Bee Cave location at the Shops at the Galleria following in 2009. The most recent opened in February 2011 at The Shops at Arbor Trails in Southwest Austin.
He said he picked the location because he expects the neighboring retail, Costco and Whole Foods—slated to open this summer—will be a big draw for visitors.
“I love the center,” Mandola said of The Shops at Arbor Trails. “It’s done pretty well—not quite up to expectations—but the opening of Whole Foods will help.”
One of the original partners of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Mandola has been in the restaurant ownership business since he was a senior in college, when he and a friend opened Damian’s Fine Italian Food in Huntsville.
After leaving Huntsville, Mandola returned home to Houston, where he and his nephew Johnny Carrabba began Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
Carrabba still owns two locations in Houston, but the duo sold the Carrabba’s concept to Tim Gannon, one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse. Gannon is still expanding the Carrabba’s franchise to locations across the nation under the name OSI Restaurant Partners.
After selling the rights to Carrabba’s, Mandola decided to move to Austin at the suggestion of his wife, Trina. He began a winery, which he has since sold and is now operating under the name Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood. Mandola still owns the restaurant next door to the winery, Trattoria Lisina, a restaurant with tableside service.
Something that stands out at Mandola’s, besides the Italian soccer flags hanging from the ceiling and the meats hanging from hooks, are the walls covered in black-and-white photos. Mandola continues sharing his Sicilian background with his customers through the photos of Italian-American grocers—mostly Houstonites of Italian descent—submitted from families Mandola wrote to as well as the occasional customer submission.
“It’s an old-fashioned Italian-American store and classic Italian-American food with our famous wall of Italian-American grocers,” Mandola said.
Mandola’s Italian Market owner Damian Mandola’s mother, Grace, taught him her tried-and-true Italian recipes.
Some of his favorite menu items include the lasagna, which he says is “fabulous.”
He also suggests first-timers try the diavolo pizza ($12) with hot capicola, marinara, Romano and mozzarella cheese, hot cherry peppers, red pepper flakes, caramelized onions and mixed herbs.
Another Italian classic Mandola’s recommends is the spaghetti carbonara ($11)—a Roman classic with egg, pancetta, garlic, Romano cheese and a touch of cream and scallions.
For dessert, Mandola says to try the zucchuto—stemming from the word “pumpkin” for its dome shape—that has layers of sponge cake lightly moistened with hazelnut syrup, chocolate mousse and sweet ricotta.
For those who enjoy culinary adventures at home rather than dining out, Mandola also offers his family’s Italian cookbooks for sale at the restaurant.
In one place, customers can find recipes, fresh cheese, breads, wines and other Italian goods along with a bottle of wine.
The restaurant’s bakery is housed at The Triangle—but available at all locations—and offers a wide selection of artisan breads, from ciabatta to focaccia.