These three brothers from Bohemia were just 21, 22 and 23 when they opened their first Mannino’s Italian restaurant on Commack Road in Commack in 1996.
Were they nervous at the time?
“We were too young and stupid to be nervous,” said Joe Mannino, now 50.
Spoiler alert: Things worked out for them.
Things worked out real well.
The Manninos, whose parents emigrated from Sicily to Long island in the 1980s, run a growing empire of popular Mannino’s fine Italian restaurants in Commack, Smithtown and Oakdale.
They did it all on their own, saving money from their teenage years, with John working in construction and Joe and Frank cooking in local restaurants.
“Bat out of hell,” is a phrase Joe uses when speaking about each location’s opening.
In other words, they were all busy from jump.
That’s just how things seem to go for the Manninos. Here’s how.
It only took a few months in Commack for the Manninos to realize they had already outgrown the 2,200-square-foot space.
They needed to expand, yet they were patient, and would remain on Commack Road for 18 years. During that time, they were building a very loyal fanbase that would pay dividends later.
In 2001, the brothers were offered an opportunity to take over a Smithtown pizza parlor in the Village Commons plaza on East Main Street.
That happened in April of 2001, and it was immediately popular. Soon after, they expanded next door in Smithtown, doubling the size of the space.
Not only that, they took care to differentiate themselves from most pizzeria restaurants.
“There’s not many places where you can get a pizza, or you can get a dry aged steak for $100,” said Michael DiCarlo of DiCarlo Food Service, which distributes food to all Mannino’s restaurants.
“The [concept] is just awesome; this is not your normal pizzeria restaurant at all.”
Then came the Oakdale Mannino’s, which is perpetually packed on Montauk Highway.
The initial idea was to purchase the building and rent it out.
“But the place had so many issues that needed to be fixed,” Joe said, “so we decided to go into it. We reconstructed a whole new place and it took right off. And the South Shore is just an entirely different animal.
Frank added, “Oakdale is a three-hour hang, and if John [Mannino] catches you at the bar, then you’re staying longer. And you’re going to have a real good time.”
For awhile, Oakdale was the largest of the Mannino’s restaurants.
Then everything in Commack changed in 2014.
The brothers knew since 1996 that they needed more room in Commack, and in 2012 purchased the vacated ToFu building nearby on Jericho Turnpike.
They hooked up with great architects and engineers for the massive rebuild, got their permits in place and got to work.
That work included dining rooms and bars upstairs and down, and the type of exterior facelift that would make the place unrecognizable from the old Chinese restaurant.
Best of all, they agreed with the architect to build an upstairs deck for an outdoor, rooftop dining experience in the warmer months.
“That was the best thing we ever did,” Joe said.
All that patience and planning paid off with their 2014 grand opening.
“We opened like a beast,” Joe said. “There were cops guiding traffic on Jericho Turnpike. Lines to get in. We eventually had to expand our parking lot.”
At the time, they didn’t take reservations. People would wait 2 1/2 to 3 hours for the Mannino’s brand of traditional Italian food. Of course, they were also there to check out the sparkling new space and rooftop deck that everyone in Commack was talking about.
Swanky is a great word to describe the Commack spot, where the Mannino’s run an extensive steak program. Because some occasions are just too special to go without a 24-ounce, dry-aged cowboy steak.
All three Mannino brothers will give you that same two-word answer if you ask them what makes their restaurants so successful.
Especially in a very crowded Italian landscape on Long Island.
But hard work involves a lot, including laser focus on consistency, keeping the restaurants in the best possible shape, and fostering a great atmosphere among staffers.
“We’ve had great employees that were committed to the value and the standards,” Frank said. “Our employees make us better people.”
Looking back, Frank also thinks that having young, twenty-somethings owning and operating the original Mannino’s in Commack did help for a laid-back and fresher vibe than similar restaurants at the time.
“We were young and we welcomed everybody,” he said. “Young adults felt real comfortable coming in with their girlfriends. Even the older guys took their jackets off to hang out.”
One more thing to mention, and this is good advice for any would-be restauranteur: always show up to the store, Frank said.
And no amount of work is above you.
“We cook. We prep. We serve,” Frank said. “People will see me and ask, ‘You’re the owner?’”
“And I say, ‘Why do you sound surprised?’”
They all thank their parents for that work ethic, which includes one tough disciplinarian of a mother.
“We came from Italy at 10 years old and it was do or die,” Frank said.
“And, they never sacrifice quality,” DiCarlo said.
“We never looked at prices,” Frank agreed. “We always wanted quality, imported spices and a range of imported and locally sourced food for that farm-to-table Italian experience.”
Many of the recipes come from their mom, though with some modern tweaks as customers’ palates and preferences have indeed evolved over the decades.
For instance, you’ll no longer find chicken marsala or chicken francese on the Mannino’s menu, which were Italian staples in the 1980s and 1990s.
That’s the type of change that happens during a 30-year adventure in restaurant ownership.
And it’s been some ride for the Manninos.
“It’s been smooth as a lake,” said Frank, with a smile — and a hint of sarcasm.
Then he qualified his statement: “Maybe smooth as a choppy lake.”
Top: The Mannino’s location on Jericho Turnpike in Commack. (Credit: Facebook)