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June 4, 2013

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Even as a kid, Anthony Russo's heart belonged to pizza.

The owner and head chef of Houston-based Russo's New York Pizzeria Inc. recalls walking with his father more than 30 years ago by small New Jersey Italian restaurants.

He'd gaze through the glass, carefully observing culinary prowess in the hands that kneaded floured dough and sauced full scoops of fresh marinara.

When he was 11, his family moved to Galveston and opened the first Russo's Pizzeria in 1978. It was there Russo said he gained the knowledge from his father and other guest chefs to eventually open his first restaurant when he was just 17 years old.

Today, Russo owns more than 28 domestic locations of his two restaurant concepts, Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen and Russo's New York Pizzeria, with an ode to the pizza makers he once admired. In addition, two of his restaurants are open in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Russo's is in a growth phase right now, with a number of locations in development. Already in 2013, the company completed agreements to open more than 10 restaurants in Hawaii, San Antonio and Austin, and internationally throughout the Middle East.

Russo said the company had total sales of $25.3 million last year, up from $24.1 million in 2011.

Russo often travels to purchase authentic ingredients for his stores. Recently, he sat down with HBJ reporter Shaina Zucker to discuss the backstory of the brand that inspired him to sling pizza pie all over the world.

What was a challenging moment in your career?

Going to the Middle East and opening up franchise locations. We had to come up with a menu that fits their culture. We had to develop Italian food with no pork and no wine and had to customize the menu and had to adapt with the market.

That was challenging. But after spending time there, we found that we could add things like an eggplant pizza or Mediterranean dips.

Why did you venture into Houston from Galveston?

I had a drive that I wanted to open up more stores. Galveston is a very seasonal town. We would get a lot of business in the summertime, and then it would slow down. Houston had a lot of growth at the time, and, even today, Houston is expanding.

Texas itself has really great opportunities to open up any kind of business. To grow the concept, I had to leave Galveston, but today, we have a location there again.

What's in your fridge at home?

I just went shopping. actually - fresh mozzarella, Romano cheese, prosciutto, shrimp, salmon, broccoli, fresh fruits and vegetables.

What pantry items should people always have on hand?

Olive oil, for sure. No margarine or butter, forget it. And balsamic vinegar - just healthy items, it's not that hard.

If you're shopping for a gift for a friend who likes to cook, where do you go?

Sur La Table or Williams Sonoma - those are my two favorite stores.

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