When Damian Mandola talks about Texas, he's also talking about food. When he talks about his family's native Italy, he's talking food. When he talks about friends, he's talking food. And when Damian talks about family, he's most certainly talking about food.
Damian has loved to cook since he was a child. His mother Grace taught him the basics of Italian cooking at a very young age. Amazing Grace, as the family often calls her, also gave Damian a love for exploring local flavors and cuisines, such as Creole cooking. As Damian himself explains, "Our family originally came to Louisiana from Italy, then to Texas, so our food draws on what's good in all those cultures. It's a combination, like saying "Ciao, y'all."
Damian's love for cooking and for combining traditional Italian cuisine with local flavors and styles prompted him to open his own casual eatery called Damian's during his senior year of college at Sam Houston State. After returning to Houston he opened Damian's Cucina Italiana, a citywide favorite that offered a fine-dining version of his original restaurant. As the demand for more casual Italian restaurants grew, he founded Carrabba's with his nephew, Johnny Carrabba. With their combined love for cooking and creating a fun, friendly atmosphere, Carrabba's Italian Grill has grown to a fifteen-state restaurant empire. Damian has preserved the authenticity of Carrabba's Italian Grill food by traveling the world in search of unique Italian dishes and by taking numerous trips to his grandparent's native Italy.
As Damian will tell you, he's an Italian-American, but he's also proud to be a Texan. Damian's cooking style has its basis in traditional Italian cooking, to which he artfully adds touches of Creole, Mexican, and, of course, Texas barbeque. "Oh, you're gonna see a little of everything in our new show Cucina Amore, soon to be seen on PBS," laughs Damian, "from pot stickers to tostadas. Then, my mother Grace, who's 80, wants to share her Gumbo recipe."
Damian's love of family is an integral part of his cooking style. Many of the recipes on Carrabba's menu are authentic family recipes from Damian's mother Grace and Johnny's mother Rose. The menu also includes many personal touches, such as sausage made according to Johnny's father's secret recipe and dishes named after family members and friends. "Well, I like to cook. And I know what tastes good. And I just take what my mother taught me, you know? Food is to be enjoyed, and it's to bring people together."
Spend a day in the kitchen with Damian, and you'll find that not only is the food to be enjoyed, so is the preparation. "I mean, some of the best laughs we've ever had have been in the kitchen," says Damian, when talking about his culinary partnership with his nephew Johnny. And as Johnny says, "Damian is a lot of things, you know. He's like being with different personalities at all times…. Never a dull moment!" That may be the best way to describe Damian: while preparing food, traveling the world to discover new ingredients and cuisines, sharing food with family, friends, and guests…. never a dull moment!