Bambolino’s Drive-Thru Pizzeria

Bambolino’s was a Houston-based Pizza-by-the-slice chain, which, as of 2024, only operates a single location. The idea for Bambolino’s lies in a long-standing desire of the Laurenzo family to serve Italian food. Ninfa’s husband, Domenic, was the son of Italian immigrant parents. Just as Ninfa had grown up eating authentic Mexican food, he loved Neopolitan Italian foods. When the pair decided to relocate to Houston, they used their knowledge of home cuisine to establish a food supplier for both fares. Initially, their company, known as Rio Grande Tortillas, would focus on pizza dough and tortillas to supply existing Italian and Mexican restaurants in Houston. After the unexpected death of her husband, Ninfa Laurenzo was left in charge of a company that had grown substantially but needed updates. With a loan from a friend in 1973, Laurenzo would enter the restaurant world herself, putting the Italian on pause to focus on money. Over the next few years, the restaurant quickly became the main focus, taking over the tortilla business and promoting Ninfa Laurenzo to a new status within Houston. With no previous restaurant experience, Laurenzo, aided by her children, would lead the company through a rapid expansion that, at some point, would be assisted by outside company McFaddin Ventures.

With the support of an outside company, the family began its first venture into an Italian restaurant, Laurenzo’s Italian Bar & Grille, which opened in May 1986. The restaurant was said to be a million-dollar project pitched by RioStar (the Laurenzo family’s company) to McFaddin. The massive new restaurant featuring an open kitchen was built directly across the Galleria. Despite an initially warm reception, the new restaurant was said to lose nearly half a million dollars in the few months it operated. McFaddin would pull the plug on Laurenzo’s, converting it to a Ninfa’s before selling it to Ciro’s, who only operated it for a few years. The fall-out from Laurenzo’s would eventually lead to the partnership between McFaddin and RioStar going sour, though that’s best left for its own article. While the family’s first Italian restaurant had quickly failed, they did not abandon the concept. Their concept wasn’t off, and the food received a warm reception; in retrospect, it seems the allure of money may have overblown the project, which was fulfilling the dream of Ninfa’s late husband. Determined to However, their lack of a partner did require a reduction in scope, and the project would take a new direction. Rather than trying to open in the broad category of Italian restaurants, the Laurenzo family decided to find a niche: a fast-food Italian chain named Bambolino’s.

A promotional photo of a Bambolino’s in the Houston Chronicle

This wouldn’t be the Laurenzo family’s first foray into quick service. They had operated a drive-thru Mexican restaurant named Deigo’s in the early 70s. However, needing to focus on expanding their core business of Ninfa’s at the time, the family sold Diego’s after successfully building up a small chain. Unlike Diego’s, which was a more traditional fast food, Bambolino’s would focus on the new trend of take-out-only service. Bambolino’s prototypes would be built as portable structures meant to be constructed off-site and dropped off in existing parking lots. They would take up just under 300 sqft and meant to fit within two parking spaces. The menu was quite limited, focusing on pizza by the slice, which was still a novel concept not easily available outside of malls at the time, and fresh lemonade, which would quickly become a star item. Bambolino’s took the Rally’s/Checkers approach to fast food, a limited menu, takeout-only service, cheap franchise fees, and low prices. The plan was to open about four restaurants and track their performance before franchising. The first Bambolino’s would open at the end of March in the parking lot of a former A&P at the corner of Bissonnet and Beechnut. The buildings were indeed prefabricated and could be rigged up surprisingly quickly, taking only a few days to be set up. After allowing a few months for the first location to prove itself, Bambolino’s would sign on for a second location at Durham and Washington, and it would be open less than two weeks after being announced. The two locations served largely different demographics, but both found success. The menu was limited, but the prices were cheap. Options included the aforementioned pizza by the slice, spaghetti, and lasagna, which comprised the bulk of the menu, and the entrees ranged from $1.40 to $2.50. Reviews of the time seem to skew positive, especially for the pizza; while it was not gourmet Italian food, it didn’t claim to be either.

The restaurants were a hit with those on a budget, and the next two locations reflected that, with one store in The Heights and another in Montrose making up the base of the four test stores. The Montrose location was meant to be the basis of a new strategy for the chain. It was built in the parking lot of a newly built Circle K and meant to be the first location in a partnership to build Bambolinio’s into new Circle K stores. The partnership was supposed to net 18 locations by the end of the following year, with Bambolinio shooting for 25 stores overall in 1988. To accomplish this goal, Bambolino’s would open franchising by December 1987. The chain performed extremely well in this demographic, and by the end of the year, the company had opened a fifth location shortly after opening up franchising. The low investment cost made Bambolino’s an attractive and easy option for new franchisees. With all this good news under their belt, Bambolinos predicted to reach 50 stores in Houston, aspiring for 800 throughout the U.S. Less than a year after franchising opened up, the company had grown to eight locations, and things were looking good. That is until Bambolino’s deal with Circle K fell apart. While the reasoning was never made public, Bambolino’s could not capitalize upon those planned 18 locations to help achieve their goals. They would have to move forward on a location-by-location basis. Without a large corporate partner like McFaddin, financing would be much lower, with the family having to raise the money needed to purchase land and pay for the prefabricated buildings. despite this, though, Bambolino soldiered on, even borrowing money from Ninfa’s when needed. Around this time, Bambolino’s would begin promoting their connection to Ninfa’s in recruiting franchisees, growing by the end of 1988 to 16 locations, eight company-owned and eight franchised.

The company had grown considerably quickly for how tight funding had initially been. The choice of putting their first location in a non-grocery shopping center likely was made out of cost savings; despite this, the concept thrived thanks to its it’s core, which was a good product. Beyond its height of sixteen continuously operating locations, Bambolino’s menu items were featured at another RioStar concept, Joey Jacks, and the food was often featured at temporary setups like conventions and celebrations, most famously the Republican National Convention, where the Laurenzo family received recognition from the event, and were given a chance to speak. Bambolino’s would even expand during this time into Louisiana, with a single location opening in Lafayette replacing what was likely the Western most Rax Roast Beef location. Leading into 1989, things seemed to be looking up for Bambolino, that is, until priorities began to shift. In late 1989, RioStar quietly purchased a four-chain Cajun restaurant named Atchafalaya River Cafe. The chain was considered a hot property; they were one of the lone survivors of the 1980s “cajun rush” in Houston. I have not seen the amount RioStar paid, but it was likely funded by money originally earmarked for Bambolino’s. The company-owned high-profit operations were appealing versus the lower volume, franchised Bambolino’s. At the time, some of the first Bambolino’s franchisees began to balk. Fees had been temporarily lowered at the start and had likely risen by this point, causing a few to drop out, leaving RioStar with buildings they needed to operate.

A photo of a Bambolino’s post-Ninfa’s conversion Houston Chronicle

While some franchisees decided the chain wasn’t for them, others suggested changes needed to be made to the menu. Specifically, since RioStar had such a knowledge of Fajitas, why not try selling them? In June 1990, four company-owned Bambolino’s locations were converted to Ninfa’s Mexican Cafes, so-called Fajitarias, which focused on Fajitas and offered a few other staples from Ninfa’s menus. With the four converted stores and dropped franchisees, Bambolino’s was reduced to 10 locations at this point. The final new location to open would be in 1992, with the addition of a location at Intercontinental Airport. The remaining 10 locations would all close between 1992 and 1993, with one exception: the Montrose location, which had been the basis of the failed Circle K expansion, continued to operate even after Circle K left Houston in 1994. During events and festivals, RioStar would continue to trot Bambolino’s out with the final showing being in 1996, only months before RioStar’s bankruptcy case. The final Bambolino’s continued under company owner operation until the end of 1997, when the bankruptcy necessitated its transfer to a franchisee. The Laurenzo family could hold onto the Bambolino’s name and continued to franchise the single location even through a 2004 relocation after the former Circle K lot was demolished for a new CVS.

In 2011 Bambolino’s would make a brief return on Airline Drive. The location had previously been Chispas Del Tiempo, a fast-casual version of El Tiempo. It would only last for a few months before it was retooled as an updated version of Bambolino’s. It still featured pizza by the slice and lemonade but added chicken fajita pizza into the mix. It also featured dine-in and delivery instead of drive-thru service. The new Bambolino’s would last about a year before closing. In a 1997 post-bankruptcy reflection on RioStar, the author regarded Bambolino’s experiment as a failure. However, in my research, I think it was less of a failed experiment and more of a red-headed stepchild. It seems to be fondly remembered but abandoned for grander projects and eventually left behind after bankruptcy. The 2011 reboot seemed to be done with love but wasn’t a great fit for the area. In the end, the long-term success of the Montrose location, even in the constantly changing neighborhood, shows that there is love for Bambolino’s Dirve-Thru by the slice pizza.

Location List

Store No
16751 Bissonnet St, Houston, TX 770741987-1991, Company Owned, Demolished 2015 when Aldi purchased the lot
24825 Washington Ave, Houston, TX 770071987-1992, Company Owned, Later Shortstop, Still standing, Drive-Thru Margaritas as of 2023
32018 Yale St, Houston, TX 770081987-1992, Company Owned, Demolished for McDonald's
44310 Montrose Blvd, Houston, TX 770061987-2004, Company Owned, Opened in partnership with Circle K, Demolished for CVS, Relocated
41525 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 770062004-Present, Still open as of 2024
53451 Ella Blvd, Houston, TX 770181987-1990, Company Owned, Converted to Ninfa's, Demolished
63818 Old Spanish Trail, Houston, TX 770211988-1990, Company Owned, Converted to Ninfa's in 1990
79406 Cullen Blvd, Houston, TX 770511988-1991, Demolished for Taco Bell?
81600 Broadway St, Houston, TX 770121988-1990, Company Owned, Converted to Ninfa's, Demolished
93405 E Broadway St, Pearland, TX 775811990-1990, Company Owned, Converted to Ninfa's, Closed 1994, Still standing Papa Johns
113404 S Shepherd Dr, Houston, TX 770981989-1992, Demolished for Express Lube
135813 Lockwood Dr, Houston, TX 770261988-1993, Parking Lot of Fiesta, Demolished for Water Station
1410808 S Post Oak Rd, Houston, TX 770351989-1993, Between Foodarama and Walgreens, Demolished for Pawn Shop
166739 Harrisburg Blvd, Houston, TX 770111989-1993, Demolished remains in parking lot, Old School?
?7711 W Bellfort Blvd, Houston, TX 770711989-1992, Still standing, Medical Clinic as of 2024
?3701 N Terminal Rd, Houston, TX 770321990-1997, Three locations Inside IAH Terminals B&C
?5105 Avenue H, Rosenberg, TX 77471Demolished, Randalls Parking Lot
?2000 W Pinhook Rd, Lafayette, LA 705081989-1993, Still standing, Goodwill Donation Center, Replaced a Rax Roast Beef location
?1410 Gessner Rd, Houston, TX 770801989-?
1504 Airline Dr, Houston, TX 770092011-2012, Previously Chispas Tiempo another Laurenzo concept, Pinkertons as of 2024