Johnny Carrabba & Damian Mandola
If any two people were "born to cook," it is certainly the founders of Carrabba's Italian Grill, the loveable duo of Johnny Carrabba and his uncle Damian Mandola. These two kindred spirits share a passion for food and hospitality matched only by their love of family and friends. Part of a close-knit family whose ancestors came to the United States from Sicily in the late 1890s, Johnny and Damian grew up surrounded by wonderful food.
Food was not just for sustenance, rather an occasion to gather and discuss the events of the day and celebrate good times. Food is a part of their inherent personalities because that is how they were raised. Food was central to births, christenings, weddings, graduations and funerals. Most family conversations begin with, "Whadya eat?" It is no wonder these two talented impresarios have made decades-long careers in the restaurant business and have spanned the highly acclaimed PBS cooking program "Cucina Sicilia" and the cookbook, Ciao Ya'll.
Viewers of the fun-loving cooking program may find the southern accents of Johnny and Damian a bit strange. They will tell you their Texas twang is simply the result of an immigrant family who had the good fortune to settle on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Childhoods spent in the kitchen gave Johnny and Damian their knowledge of Italian food and the original family recipes used to this day at Carrabba's Italian Grill. As young boys they spent many hours in their grandmothers' kitchens inhaling the smells of fresh produce used in the many dishes served for Sunday supper, memorable meals that resembled most family reunions. Small backyard gardens provided fresh herbs and produce that were paired with homemade pasta and grilled meats. The family used seeds and cuttings from the "old country" to grow what they couldn't find in the small neighborhood grocery stores.
Both Johnny and Damian grew up working in restaurants owned by aunts and uncles in their hometown Houston. Damian was the first to venture on his own, opening a small pizzeria, Damian's, during his college years at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, TX. After graduation, he opened what would become a Houston favorite, Damian's Cucina Italiana, a fine dining restaurant located near the city's downtown business district.
Johnny was also making a name for himself in the restaurant industry managing his Uncle Tony's Blue Oyster Cafe. It was after many conversations and the realization that Houston was sorely lacking in the Italian casual dining experience that the two discussed creating a new restaurant of their own. The desire for a restaurant that was original--"not your typical Italian"--gave birth to Carrabba's in 1986.
The restaurant's interiors were designed with the family kitchen in mind--the one place everyone gathers when friends and family get together. The wood-burning pizza oven and grill were part of the exhibition kitchen that allowed diners to take in the bustle of the cooks as they prepared the time-honored family recipes. One thing led to another; they soon had a second location that was as popular as the first.
In 1993, a joint venture partnership was formed with OSI Restaurant Partners Inc. Under the partnership, ten locations were opened in Houston and Florida. In January 1995, OSI acquired the rights to develop Carrabba's nationally.
Today Johnny and Damian are busy developing new recipes, visiting restaurants, and sharing their family heritage with "Carrabbamicos" (employees) across the country. They most enjoy the opportunity to share their passion for wonderful food with fans around the world.