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Family tradition drives chef’s pizza expansion

Anthony Russo

Anthony Russo’s family recipes reflect his Italian heritage at Russo’s New York Pizzeria, which he’s grown to 50 franchise locations.

Anthony Russo
Russo’s New York Pizzeria

By Alex Van Abbema

Italian food is very much a family affair for Anthony Russo, and he’s used his family ties and Italian heritage to inspire Russo’s New York Pizzeria, his pizza franchise with a growing global footprint.

Russo spent much of his childhood rolling cannoli and making desserts with his grandmother, who, along with his parents, immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1962.

He worked his first job at Russo’s Italian Restaurant, a restaurant his father owned in Houston, at age 12. It was there he learned how to cook his family’s recipes for pizza, lasagna and fettuccine alfredo.

“After school I would do homework at the restaurant. They had an office in the back. I would watch the guys cook, and wash dishes, and cooked when I got older,” Russo says. “I was really close to my dad, and it was always interesting working behind him and helping him out.”

Russo says being an entrepreneur has always been in his blood, and as soon as he graduated high school, he set out to be a restaurant owner.

At 18, Russo took out a $50,000 bank loan to open his first restaurant, the upscale Russo Cafe Anthony, and a second, similar concept soon followed. Both did well, but Russo was inspired by the more casual pizzeria model he saw throughout Europe, and wanted to meld his family’s heritage and recipes into something he could replicate throughout the United States.

Russo's New York Pizzeria

Classic ingredients such as prosciutto and mozzarella are prominent on Russo’s menu.

When it launched in 1992, Russo’s New York Pizzeria had a simpler menu with pizza by the slice, salads, sandwiches and calzones. Once the concept took off and he recognized its potential, Russo started franchising the stores and adding more of his family’s Italian dishes to the menu.

“Back then it was simple—pizza, salads and calzones,” Russo says. “As the concept worked, we added old family favorites like lasagna and baked ziti.”

Now the menu includes about 19 pasta dishes, 23 different types of pizzas, and calzones, desserts, soups and salads. Russo says about 70 percent of the current menu comes from recipes from his family. To replicate these menu items throughout Russo’s franchised family, he put together seasoning packages and detailed recipes that cooks can follow to make each dish.

“It’s a simple format, and anybody can follow the steps on how to make lasagna,” Russo says. “We’re trying to help standardize my recipes across the board for 80 to 100 stores one day.”

Beyond his pizzeria brand, Russo’s toyed around with some new concepts. In 2008, he introduced a coal-fired Italian kitchen concept in Richardson, Texas, which uses a similar menu and ingredients, but has its pizza grilled in a coal-fired oven. Russo says he’s also putting a new spin on the Russo’s menu and its overall concept with an upcoming microbrewery effort. New York Italia Pizza Kitchen & Brewery will open in early 2020, paired with craft beers brewed in house. The concept will launch with three restaurants in Houston, and Russo says he’s planning an expansion of this concept, believing it will be a great fit beyond his home market.

“With our Italian concept, people like wine and beer. I think it’s a perfect match for us,” Russo says. “There are systems in place where we can make beer in house now, and I want to take advantage of that.”

Beyond the restaurant menus, Russo developed his own frozen pizza line using the same sauce, cheese and flavors as Russo’s original pizza. It’s sold in 2,000 retail stores throughout the country.

As he continues to innovate Russo’s New York Pizzeria, which now has 50 franchised locations throughout the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Russo still works in the kitchen from time to time, helping make lasagna and roll dough for cannoli, as he did when he was a child.

“I’m not just someone who runs this business from a corporate environment,” Russo says. “I actually get in the kitchen with them, chat with them, and feel things out.”

Anthony Russo

Culinary Q&A with Anthony Russo

What’s your first food memory?

I lived in Patterson, New Jersey, when I was 8 years old. I went to a little pizza shop at 21st Avenue in New Jersey, and I was able to buy pizza by the slice at 30 cents. Obviously I had no idea I was going to be in the pizza restaurant business at the time. Often, all my friends and I had was 30 cents, and I would go with them. That was my favorite thing to do.

What’s the last thing you cooked at home?

Veal marsala, I sometimes cook that on weekends here at the house. On weekends I do a lot of grilling, either with fish, snapper, shrimp and sometimes steaks.

What’s your guilty pleasure food?

I love steaks. The bone-in ribeye is my favorite. That’s once in a while when I go out to eat. Otherwise a slice of pizza is my go-to.

If you could only eat or drink three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?

Wine for sure. I like tequila, and a vodka mojito. I also love pizza, sushi and Thai food.

You’re both the head chef and CEO of Russo’s. How would you describe your leadership style?

I start my day and mornings with my staff. As far as leadership style, I would say I’m pretty straightforward, and I think my staff appreciate and respect that. I go to the office, I visit one or two of them, spend my time in the kitchen with my staff and cook with them. I enjoy doing that sort of thing.

Heidi Gibson - The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen  •  Sheldon Simeon - Pokéworks 
•  Patty Scheibmeir - Rave Restaurant Group  •  Diego Comparin - Paciugo Gelato & Café 
•  Anthony Russo - Russo’s New York Pizzeria

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