A Family Fare | Love’s the secret ingredient at new Italian eatery

The namesake of Manni’s Italian Kitchen has a key vision for the restaurant – that it becomes a place for people to fall in love.
Now, whether that’s with a blind date, a bowl of strawberry gelato or a plate of Bucatini Alla Pescatora Fra Diavolo remains to be seen.
The restaurant opened its doors and its kitchen to the public Tuesday, and diners returning to 224 W. Pacific Ave. are in for a surprise as the former pizza joint has undergone an extensive renovation and revitalization since they last stepped inside.
The cuisine, of course, has met a complete transformation as well. The team behind Manni’s aims or a homey Italian menu to welcome a diverse community of family, friends, neighbors and, perhaps, future sweethearts.
That’s how it began, after all.

A few years back, Manni Sheikh was set up on a blind date at Café Barron’s in Longview, and he’s grateful today to credit the locally-owned fine dining establishing for changing his life. On the other side of that equation was Madison Mack, likewise eager to meet her mystery dinner companion.
From that first meal to courtship, proposal, engagement, wedding and honeymoon, the couple’s love story is part of the fabric of Manni’s Italian Kitchen and, in no small way, its origin story. The choice of menu manifested not long after they said their vows in 2023.
“Right after we got back from our honeymoon, actually,” Manni says. “We went to Italy,” touring through Capri, Rome and Florence. “It’s just a great place.”
“I said, we ought to just open up a restaurant. It ended up taking some shape, and a myriad of things came together for this.”
It came together just in time: the restaurant’s official grand opening March 19 landed one day after Madison and Manni’s one-year anniversary.
Notably, their families are integral in the restaurant’s story, as well – Madison’s the daughter of Longview Mayor Dr. Andy Mack; Manni’s the son of SND Energy Company’s Ali Sheikh, a cornerstone East Texas oil producer;
“I started working here about 10 years ago in the East Texas, Longview, Gladewater area,” Manni said. “To be around in the ‘30s and ‘40s at these places that were booming – the history behind the places, it’s neat…”
The newlyweds looked into buying 224 W. Pacific Ave. It was, at that point, a fixer-upper. The former West Pacific Pizza had seen better days, and it had been shuttered for a good while.
“With a little imagination, though… My dad said, ‘We might as well make a pizza place.’ All the equipment was already here,” Manni recalled. “It kind of evolved from there to ‘Let’s get a whole new kitchen, let’s get it all fixed up.’”
Unsurprisingly, the two joined families were keen for what would come of the dream: “The grandmothers and the aunts, they just wanted a good place to come eat. We brought them for a tasting here, and they were all ranting and raving.”

Most of the recent renovations have been handled internally, with few contractors involved, but the changes are extensive. The main dining room remains, of course, but it’s had a full makeover, including the installation of a new bar in the brightened space behind a refreshed façade.
Through one doorway is the new gelato parlor, welcoming patrons there for lighter fare. The gelato area will feature as many as nine flavors and special combinations – a recent private event featured butter pecan, strawberry-meringue and ‘real vanilla’ with vanilla beans – plus two flavors of soft-serve not far from a two-gauge espresso machine.
The creamery offers a front-row seat for the real heart of the restaurant: the Manni’s team has embraced an open kitchen concept, giving patrons the opportunity to witness the hustle and flow of the staff, and that energy was already at a healthy peak during a soft opening event March 15.
The kitchen’s almost wholly-changed since Wayne Shott put almost 20 years into the former pizza joint. Today, he’s the new eatery’s VP of Sales & Marketing and eager to lead tours of the refreshed building.
“It was not as pretty this then,” Shott said. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort in cleaning it up.”
Veteran Chef Romer Perez Gillespie brings more than 45 years of food and beverage experience in both free-standing restaurants and hotels of all types to the new operation – view the menu at mannisitaliankitchen.com.
Notably, the restaurant now includes a private dining area for special events plus an overflow space that used to be a game room. A key goal, Manni says, is to welcome local clubs and groups to host lunch or dinnertime meeting.
Meanwhile, he and Madison – and the wider family and team – want the spot to be a gathering place for all ages, a hub for the widest range of healthy activity and home-style dining: for young people looking to hang out, for older folks looking for a comfortable meal, for families eager for a thriving destination, for tourists in search of a sweet treat, for new couples destined to fall in love.

It’s important to the restaurant’s leadership, including General Manager Osvaldo “Ozzy” Garduno, that the spot be open seven days a week – 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday then 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
“The big thing we’re excited about is ‘Monday at Manni’s’ because most things are all closed Mondays,” Saadia Sheikh said. “That was the one thing city and residents and the community of Gladewater wanted to see, something they could come to on Mondays.
“We’ll think about specials and things about that, but the big thing is we’ll be the place in town you can come to on Mondays.”
Manni’s Italian Kitchen isn’t the only new venture the broader team is launching here, she noted.
“We’ve invested in some properties here in Gladewater,” Saadia said, “and we’re excited about bringing different uses here to Gladewater – commercial in particular. We’ve been excited to feature some things around here.
“We’re partnering with the small business association here, growing our business and making sure it’s here, locallys… bringing in the vision of East Texas but focusing on Gladewater.”
All that said, she’s also excited to see Manni and Madison at the heart of the new dining venture.
“We’ll feature their picture and their story. We’re going to put it on the back of the menu,” Saadia said. “”Their love story is the best.”

– By James Draper

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