Tony Mandina’s: A Westbank Culinary Legacy
Approaching 40 years in business, this restaurant’s story reaches across oceans and generations.
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Alciatore, Brennan, Chase – these are the ABC’s of New Orleans’ legacy restaurant families. And now, just across the Mississippi River in Gretna, Louisiana, Tony Mandina’s family is positioned to claim their own place in our culinary pantheon.
“Tony Mandina’s is a prime example of the multigenerational legacy of our community,” said Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant. “The Mandina family has given their life to food, making everyone who walks through the door feel like family.”
Neither Tony Mandina nor his wife, Grace, had any prior restaurant experience when Tony Mandina’s opened its doors on November 15, 1982. At the time, Tony was a salesman at Kirschman’s Furniture store while Grace was a stay-at-home mom, raising their three young daughters, Kim, Kolette and Kary. For several years, handyman Tony had dabbled in real estate, buying affordable properties to renovate and rent or sell when a for sale sign on a derelict barbecue shack caught his eye.
Toiling before and after his day job, construction was almost complete when Grace stopped by for their usual coffee break. As they looked around, Tony suggested, “I’ve been thinking, Grace. The girls are getting older … maybe we should open this and have a little restaurant ourselves.” “I was floored! ‘What do we know about a restaurant, Tony?’” Grace asked. “He said, ‘You’re always cooking lots of food and we live right down the street…’ Little did I know it wasn’t just about cooking!”
In those early days, before beginning his day at Kirshmann’s, Tony would rise before dawn to make red gravy and bake fresh bread and cuccidati, closely following heritage recipes learned from his mother, “Maw-maw” Mandina. By lunchtime, he was back, greeting customers at the door while Grace and her sisters performed the other duties.
Originally, Tony Mandina’s offered only weekday lunch service. Eager for more business only two months after opening, he came up with the idea to offer buy-one, get-one free meatballs and spaghetti on Tuesdays. “Two For Tuesdays” created such a sensation that by late spring 1983, the restaurant’s hours expanded to include dinner on Friday and Saturday, while Monday lunch was eliminated. It’s a schedule they still maintain today.
The Mandina’s Sicilian family ties are evident in the authenticity of their cuisine. Tony first connected with cousins there in 1960 while stationed overseas in the Army. In 2009, his daughter, Kolette Mandina Ditta, expanded family connections dramatically when she discovered cousins in Salaparuta, a little town in southwestern Sicily where Mandina family roots can be traced back to 1720, spanning six generations.
On family land in Salaparuta, the Sicilian Mandinas cultivate grapes and olives that are crafted into fine vintages and extra-virgin oil. Kolette quickly began an import venture to make the family’s vintages and olive oil available both at the restaurant and in local stores.
The imported products were a natural addition to the wholesale business Kolette created several years ago when she began producing Tony Mandina’s Red Gravy by the quart. The red gravy found a large, devoted following in grocery stores across the South and nationwide as customers discovered it on Amazon.
The family’s entire life has always revolved around the restaurant. When Kolette gave birth to her daughter, Lindsey, they stopped at Tony Mandina’s first on the way home from the hospital. Little Lindsey literally grew up there, working alongside her grandmother in the office when she wasn’t helping make meatballs in the kitchen.
As Tony and Grace got older, the demands of the business weighed on the entire family. It was clear that in order to retire, the business would have to close or be sold, neither of which seemed like a solution. After a great deal of soul searching, in 2020 Kolette and daughter Lindsey decided to purchase the family business to guarantee its future. In their “retirement,” Tony and Grace never miss a day at the restaurant. Stop by and you’ll find them happily ensconced at Table 41 ready to see old friends and meet new ones as they raise a toast to “La Familia.”
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.