“When are you coming to Houston?” Vincent Mandola was asking on the other end of the phone. We talk about once a month. Usually he calls me. Which causes me anxiety, because I feel like I’m not being as good of a friend to him as he is to me. After all, he has six restaurants, two daughters, a whole slew of grand-kids, a wife, a 95 year old mother and 300 employees. Bless me Padrone for I have sinned, it has been 45 days since my last call.
“We will be there Monday with Stefano Illuminati” I tell him. “Good. Bring him to the restaurant for dinner with the family. 6:00. Don't be late.”
Vincent isn’t someone you want to let down. Sure, he has a big hammer, but he really is one of the nice guys. Someone I have known for 20 or so years. Forget about business, just a guy I like to hang out with. He feels about Italian food like I do about Italian wine – Vincent sets the bar high.
Recently they just went to an all Italian wine list at Nino's, which in today’s world is a bit of a risk. I imagine it is calculated. But still there is always the occasional diner who wants Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay with their Fettuccine Alfredo. Like our dear departed friend Eugenio Spinozzi was fond of saying, “If someone came into your restaurant and asked for a Big Mac would you have it on the menu?”
Vincent’s mom, you can still find her in the big kitchen making something. She still has all her noodles, and like my mom (who will turn 96 soon) these are women who don’t like to sit around and wait for something to happen. Sweet lady. Old School. Solid. Beautiful.
We brought some old school Montepulciano with us for dinner, the 1990 Illuminati Zanna. Almost 20 years old, a riserva in a good, warm year. 1990 was memorable in Piedmont as well as Abruzzo. In Abruzzo the warm summer, long growing season, lots of hang time and ripening. In those days folks didn’t use a lot of new oak – tastes were more to the flavor of fruit, not wood. The Zanna 1990 paired up well with the incredible food Vincent served that night. Wonderful rapini, some beautiful white beans, an incredible roasted Cauliflower and complements with some very tender and lean tenderloin. One of the best meals I have had this year – without a doubt. Thanks Vincenzo!
The daughters, Dana and Vinceanne, have grown up in and around the restaurant business, like Stefano has with the winery. Children of strong fathers and mothers (grandmothers too) sometimes it is hard to get out from under the shadow of the Big trees. Dino Illuminati and Vincent Mandola are Big Trees. Like I said, setting the bar high.
Waiter Sal, I call him Salvatore Cavatappi, because we always bring him a wine opener for his collection. Sal is from the rough-and-tumble Naples area. I love to listen to him talk in his distinct Neapolitan dialect – always with a funny story, a jab, a smile, a wrist watch to sell. The young males of Naples have to learn to survive early. Sal is a survivor.
We drank a lot of wine that night, but we couldn’t part company until we opened up a bottle of the Nico Passito 2003, a wine that I am getting very dependent on. This is a wine that has such high acidity and great edgy fruit, perfect balance, a pleasure to drink. Not for everyday (retails for $75) but man, what a delicious drink.
Thanks Vincent and Mary and Dana and Vinceanne (and Sal) for a great night in Houston with friends and family. Keeping it real. Real good.