Voices of Houston: Owner of beloved Marini’s Empanada House details how he got his start

The empanada house has garnered the attention and appetite of presidents, and even Queen Elizabeth, over the years. At 82-years-old, Marcello is as much of a dreamer now as he was decades ago.
The empanada house has garnered the attention and appetite of presidents, and even Queen Elizabeth, over the years. At 82-years-old, Marcello is as much of a dreamer now as he was decades ago.

Marcello Marini came to Houston from Argentina in the late 1960′s with $16.35 and a dream to work in news.

“And then we get out of the taxi and I don’t know if it was going to cost me more,” he said. “But we came with a lot of hope.”

Marcello’s wife, Pelusa, was pregnant with their fifth child. Until he got his first of several journalism jobs at local TV stations, Marcello worked at a restaurant and made alfajores cookies with his wife.

Their lives changed when a customer asked Marcello to make empanadas.

“It was Tom Katz from Katz Deli,” he recalled. “I will never forget that.”

Marcello can make the stuffed dough hand-pies in seconds now, but at the time, he had never made one.

“I went in the kitchen and said ‘Honey, we need to make 500 empanadas of chicken,’” he said. “‘What? No, how come?’” he recalled her replying. “‘Well, I told him yes,’” Marcello said he responded.

The empanadas were a hit. The Marini’s opened their first restaurant in 1971 in Montrose along Westheimer.

“It was at a house on top of the blocks,” he said. “And then the building caught on fire in 1986 and I lost almost everything.”

Marcello, who is no stranger to adversity, rebuilt at their current location along Westheimer in west Houston.

“Me and my wife we both lost mother’s when we were very young. I was 6 months old. I never met my mother,” said the 82-year-old.

Marcello was raised by his Italian grandmother who he calls his architect.

“She was very strong in my life. A very strong leader,” He said fondly.

Family, Marcello said, has been part of the restaurant’s success. His wife Perlusa and their son, Manuel, both help cook.

Marcello said creativity has helped keep the business alive as well. There are more than 70 flavors of empanadas on the menu, sweet and savory. The dough is also made fresh in-house daily.

The empanada house has garnered the attention and appetite of presidents, and even Queen Elizabeth, over the years. At 82-years-old, Marcello is as much of a dreamer now as he was decades ago.

“I always dreamed to have many places. I never quit. I’m still thinking,” he said.

His current dream is to open more restaurants in the Houston area. The Marini’s also have an empanada house in Katy.