Fine dining, old world atmosphere
It's been thirty years since Damian's Cucina Italiana opened its doors in Midtown. The tradition began when Damian Mandola — the restaurant's namesake — partnered with a group of investors to start the business, then bought it outright a few years later. He ran it until 1992 and then sold it to his cousins, Frankie B. Mandola and Bubba Butera.
Not lessened by age, the authentic Italian dining spot has not only survived, but thrived. And not by bowing to trends, but by offering consistently good service and delicious, high-quality fare. Reservations never lack and devotees never waiver. Damian's is a Houston institution.
For over a quarter of a century, the charming-yet-elegant restaurant has attracted a daily assembly of people famous for striking and closing business deals while breaking bread. On any given day, tables are occupied by these high power business executives plus generations of family and cozy couples enjoying the food and the Old World atmosphere. They socialize over a meal often comprised of dishes ordered with unfaltering regularity.
For over a quarter of a century, the charming-yet-elegant restaurant has attracted a daily assembly of people famous for striking and closing business deals while breaking bread.
Though the younger crowd is not quite as prevalent, perhaps they should take note: In the wake of the closing of so many well-received restaurants like Stella Sola and Samba Grille, 30 years after its opening, people are still talking about Damian's.
Walking into the restaurant at the corner of Rosalie and Smith, the exterior freshly repainted, we are greeted by Johnny B. Mandola, Frankie B.'s son and the general manager. He proudly shows off the restaurant, including a portrait of his 18-month-old triplet sons — in chef’s hats and aprons already showing an interest in the family business — and artwork of Italian scenery and artifacts selected by Houston architect Shafik Rifaat.
He also shows us the mural that serves as a backdrop to the first floor dining room framed by archways and dotted with white linen-covered table tops offering seating for 200, and the discrete second-story private room that holds up to 130 party-goers (it's out of sight from regular diners, only accessible only through a second set of exterior doors).
It's notable that even mid-week (we visited on a Wednesday evening), the restaurant is packed.
The dining experience
In commemoration of its milestone anniversary, Damian's is reintroducing several popular dishes from years past to compliment the existing menu. As we sat down to an attentive wait staff, out of Chef Napoleon Palacios' kitchen came specials like the classic spaghetti and meatballs, Insalata Mona Lisa, Linquine alla Gamberoni, filet mignon and other culinary favorites including breads and desserts baked daily in the in-house bakery.
Hard to believe, but while the spaghetti and meatballs has always been a regular request, it has never officially been on the menu. The simple and tasty meatballs are tender spheres made up of pork, beef and veal. Added to this mix is salt, pepper, fresh garlic, green onion, parsley, parmesan cheese, bread crumbs and egg to make it stick. The Pomodoro sauce is a purist's delight created with fresh tomatoes, garlic and onion. It's well-balanced and lighter than most — not too thick or chunky.
A side dish of the sauce with bread for dipping would make for a satisfying meal in itself. I wish Damian's would jar and sell it.
Hard to believe, but while the spaghetti and meatballs has always been a regular request, it has never officially been on the menu.
The Insalata Mona Lisa is dressed with a creamy balsamic dressing and fresh young lettuces. The balsamic cuts the sweetness of the honey for balance and a smooth consistency. Toss in fresh tomatoes, sweet roasted almonds and feta cheese and the salad becomes a medley of flavors and textures. This is one of Houston's best salads.
The Linguine alla Gamberoni is made with linguine pasta with gulf shrimp, black garlic, basil, cherry tomatoes and aglio e olio, Italian for garlic and oil. While the ingredients are all complimentary to the dish, it's the black garlic that's the star of the show, infusing the olive oil with tones of molasses-like sweetness and tangy garlic. The garlic's roasted until it caramelizes which adds a smoky flavor to the end product. While enjoyable, the smoky taste didn't strike my palate quite so pleasingly as it did one of my fellow diners. "I could lick the plate," he said, polishing off his last bite.
The famous filet mignon came topped with a savory mushroom Marsala sauce; simple but elegant. The high-quality beef is topped by the sauce created from sautéed mushrooms with the addition of dry Marsala (wine), reduced, with butter added at the end for richness. The result is silky decadence and even though this version is made with dry Marsala, it's slightly sweet. Although the filet usually comes with a flavorful ammoghiu sauce of olive oil, vinegar, basil and lemon juice, I'd order this version time and time again.
Look for anniversary specials highlighted throughout the year. In March, Damian's will feature staff-selected favorite items from menus past. Damian's will also introduce Fried Chicken Friday in June. For updates, visit Facebook or sign up for the newsletter.