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ONE TO WATCH: RUSSO'S NEW YORK PIZZERIA
May 2, 2012
Authentic ingredients and fresh-made dishes help concept bring a taste of Italy to the U.S.
When asked what makes Russo's New York Pizzeria stand out from the competition, CEO Anthony Russo says without hesitation: "The right ingredients."
"Our product is totally different because our sauce is made differently," Russo says. "Other chains use prepared sauce. We make our own sauce, and to do that you have to use the good tomatoes, fresh garlic, fresh basil, and good olive oil so that when you cook the pizza, the flavors of the herbs in the sauce come out."
Russo selects fresh tomatoes from California and Mozzarella cheese from Wisconsin. He imports the olive oil used at Russo's New York Pizzeria directly from Sicily.
"It's a nice dark green, robust olive oil," he says. "The flavor is fantastic. Not all olive oil is made with Italian olives. I wanted Sicilian olive oil, so I went to places where it is produced in Sicily and found just the right orchard. You could say I went on an olive oil hunt."
Russo went on his great olive oil hunt about six years ago. "In the last few years, olive oil has become a big thing in the U.S.," he says. "It's so good for you."
Russo's mother came to the U.S. from Sicily and his father from Naples. The family moved from New York to Texas in 1978 and opened Russo's Italian Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment where, Russo says, "they made everything from scratch, including the noodles."
Russo took what he learned in his parents' kitchen and applied it to his own restaurant when he opened the first Russo's New York Pizzeria in Houston in 1992, combining "Italian culinary tradition with thin-crust pizza," he says.
Though the concept had to introduce many Texans to authentic New York pizza, Russo says, once they got a taste of the wide, foldable pizza slices with hand-tossed crust and fresh toppings, the company began to grow.
Russo expanded the New York Pizzeria concept into a franchise model. In the past decade, locations have been added in Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Florida, as well as in Abu Dhabi. In 2008, Russo's created a second concept, an upscale, table-service restaurant called Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen.
Russo says he anticipates growing Russo's New York Pizzeria to 70 locations in the next three years, starting in the Southern U.S. and eventually going national. He is also planning to continue international growth in the Middle East.
Menu variety is key in all of Russo's New York Pizzeria units. About 40 percent of the chain's sales are pasta, including items like Pasta Pomodoro, made with fresh Roma tomatoes, basil, and marinara over capellini pasta, and classics like Lasagna, Baked Ziti, and Fettuccini Alfredo.
To keep things interesting, Russo also rotates items not found on the regular menu as lunch specials, including Gnocchi al Pesto, Spaghetti Carbonara, and a variety of specialty pizzas and calzones.
The most popular pizza choices are pepperoni and what Russo says is his version of a Meat Lover's pizza, the Mulberry Special. The latter is topped with Italian sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and hamburger.
It wouldn't be an authentic New York-style pizzeria experience without pizza by the slice, which Russo says is a popular choice at lunch. "For $6.95 you get a giant slice of pizza and a salad," Russo says. "All our pizzas are available by the slice."
An average lunch ticket at Russo's New York Pizzeria is $10-$11. Dinner averages $23. The difference, Russo says, is mostly due to beer and wine sales at dinner.
The concept recently added gluten-free pizza to the menu, as well as a line of frozen gluten-free pizzas sold in grocery stores. Russo's gluten-free pizza is not New York style, since high-gluten flour is a key ingredient of authentic New York crust. But it has "its own personality," Russo says. "And with our sauce, our cheese, and our toppings, it tastes fantastic."
One of the newest Russo's New York Pizzeria stores, located in Conway, Arkansas, is the chain's first freestanding building. All of the other units are inline shopping-center locations, Russo says.
He says there is no set prototype. "The franchisee who opened this unit has multiunit experience," Russo says. "His first pick for location was a freestanding unit in front of a university, and near a freeway and residential area. It's a really great site."
Russo says every Russo's New York Pizzeria location is unique, and design is often neighborhood driven. "Some have open kitchens, some have wine bars if they are in trendy neighborhoods," he says. "They are 1,500 square feet to as large as 5,000 square feet."
He says they all offer dine-in, take-out, and delivery options. And while it varies by store, take-out and delivery can account for as much as 30 percent of sales.
"People don't cook at home much anymore, so we're selling both pasta meals and pizzas in single orders," he says.
Russo says offering a wide variety of menu options for take-out and delivery drives up sales. As for who's ordering, the demographic is broad.
"We target families and singles, young and old," he says. "Everybody likes pizza."