Damian Mandola's Next Big Thing
By Lisa Jones    
Photography by Carole Topalian

Damian Mandola sits calmly in the maelstrom of the morning startup at Mandola’s Italian Market, his new bodega. Having just finished a cooking consultation with his staff, he now evaluates the steady stream of vegetable side dishes appearing before him. An eggplant Parmesan makes for a heavenly breakfast: rich, light and savory—“not like my mother’s,” he says. “No bread crumbs or mozzarella.” This from a man who does not break lightly with old family recipes.

Two kinds of roasted peppers are followed by another eggplant Parmesan, stacked vertically, and a dish of carrots, red onions and fennel, roasted crisp. It’s a selection that would lure anyone into unexplored vegetables.

“I’ve always wanted a place like this,” Mandola says. “A little corner shop like the ones in New York Italian neighborhoods—someplace you can hang out or drop in for bread, cheese, wine, oil.”

His version includes considerably more—from imported and house-made cheeses to pastries, cookies and artisan breads, and gelati and sorbetti prepared daily. A counter café slides out pizzas, sandwiches and hot entrées to take away or enjoy in the sunny retail space or on the patio.

The Mandola clan has been known in Houston for its numerous restaurants, groceries and delis since 1912. In 1975, Damian picked up the family tradition by opening Damian’s Fine Italian Food during his senior year at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

“We were the first Italian restaurant there to open the wine bottle at the table,” he laughs. He went on to open D’Amico’s and Damian’s Cucina, both in Houston, and then branched out with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, into a restaurant that would become the first of the Carrabba’s 240-shop chain.

But he didn’t stop there. Cucina Amore, a cooking show filmed in partnership with Carrabba, has run for four seasons on PBS and generated three cookbooks: Ciao Tuscany, Ciao Sicily, and Ciao Y’all, which reflects the family’s Louisiana Cajun roots. Now he’s passed the torch to his son Damian Jr., who’s managing the Mandola Market.

“Austin restaurant-goers are really easy-going,” Mandola observes approvingly. “They’re more casual and don’t insist on having things served a certain way. They’re interested in seeing what we have to offer.”

Could he already be thinking of starting another restaurant? “Well, maybe another one…or two…somewhere in Austin,” he says, clearly enthusiastic.

  Mandola’s Italian Market may be bustling, but Damian never intended it to be more than a pied-à-terre for his most high-profile endeavor: the Mandola Estate Winery, located in the Driftwood community, southwest of Austin.

Damian’s transition to vineyard owner began when he and his wife Trina decided that the perpetual commute that is Houston wasn’t taking them anyplace they wanted to go anymore. They considered, then vetoed, a move to California.

When his wife suggested looking at Austin, Damian recalls, “I hadn’t been to Austin since I was in college in the ’70s, and I thought of Barton Springs, the Drag… I was amazed to see how much the city had grown. Things were happening here.” The Mandolas, liking what they saw, began looking for a home.

“I was starting to think about having a vineyard,” Damian recalls. “Believe it or not, Austin wine drinkers consume more bottles per capita than people in Houston, and they’re more adventurous. They’re willing to try all kinds of wacky wine. I carry bottles in the Market I’d never have tried selling in Houston.”

He compares the state of the Texas wine industry with what was happening in the Napa Valley 20 years ago. (With more than 120 wineries in operation, Texas is now the fifth largest wine-producing state in the US.) “Texas winemakers have always had a little bit of a chip on their shoulders, and there’s no reason for that,” he says. He’s convinced the region is capable of producing world-class, high-quality wines.

A vineyard takes land, and the Mandolas first looked in and around Horseshoe Bay.

“Then our realtor suggested Driftwood,” he recalls. “I remembered the Salt Lick as being way out in the country.” Now, it was practically attached to the new, greatly expanded, yet still atmospherically rural, Austin. The Mandolas were struck immediately by the possibilities of the land and the community. “Originally we bought one of three lots, but then one thing led to another and we bought the other two—375 acres in all.”

Driftwood was already home to Driftwood Vineyards, owned by Gary and Kathy Elliot, and Scott Roberts of the Salt Lick Barbeque Restaurant aims to have a 65-acre vineyard of his own within the next two years. Together with Mandola Estate, the three vineyards worked together to hatch long-term strategies. Roberts, for instance, is required by Texas law to have another vineyard produce the Salt Lick wine, and Mandola Estate will be doing the honors.

Obviously these schemes are on a much larger scale than the boutique winery Mandola originally dreamed about. “But I decided if we’re going to get in business, let’s do it right,” he says. This led to the hiring of veteran Texas winemaker Mark Penna, once the winemaker at the Ste. Genevieve Winery. In 2005, after teaming up with Doctors Stan and Lisa Duchman, they built a facility intended to produce 20,000 cases of wine. To date, 22 vineyard acres have been planted in grapes originating in Sicily and in Italy’s warmer, drier southern regions. Its first bottling is projected for fall 2007.

Naturally, the Mandola Estate is a constantly expanding venture, resplendent with Tuscan-style buildings constructed from light, warm “Austin Stone.” A restaurant, Trattoria Lisina, is slated to open in July 2007. Mandola describes it as “a place for food and wine in Driftwood, Texas—a casual family restaurant. It will be real rustic Italian, with entrees like oxtails, osso buco, roasted suckling pig. We’ll also serve rustic pastas, like wild boar with pappardelle.” Now that he’s envisioning it, Damian finds it hard to stop. How about cooking classes, a wine bar, an embellished landscape with herbs and vegetables?

“And chickens,” he adds, with feeling. “I love chickens.” This takes him back to his first rooster, a handsome black Italian cockerel named Joey Gallo—“like the gangster.”

So what could Damian Mandola possibly want to do next?

“That’s what my wife keeps asking me,” he laughs. He could devote time to the Market’s new bread and pastry bakery, but then, he says, “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at curing meats. Maybe making salamis.”

One thing’s for sure: whatever he does, it’s bound to lead to something else.

Mandola’s Italian Market
4700 West Guadalupe
Austin
512-419-9700
mandolasmarket.com

Mandola Estate Winery
13308 FM 150 W.
Driftwood
512-858-1470
mandolawines.com