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Houston pizza goes to Las Vegas — and China

Author: Houston Chronicle

Posted: Thu, 8 Apr 2010 03:53 PM

Anthony Russo wasn't panicky.

“Just concerned.”

International Pizza Expo judges would arrive in 10 minutes to taste his plain cheese pie (this was the “traditional” portion of the contest), but his pizza was already done.

This is the largest pizza trade show in the world. Six thousand pizza people from around the world are packed into the Las Vegas Convention Center. Big prize money and global bragging rights are at stake.

It's no time for a limp, cold pizza.

“A good pizza has to be served within one minute after coming out of the oven,” said Russo, founder of the New York Pizzeria chain in Houston.

Ten minutes might as well be tomorrow. Not only would his pizza be limp and cold, it would look like leftovers from the back of your refrigerator. The cheese would be pasty. The sauce would soak into the crust and lose its color. It'd be nothing short of a disaster.

Forget reheating the pizza. This is the Super Bowl of professional pizza contests. Popping a pizza back in the oven is for amateurs.

Ten minutes? No problem. Russo shooed his staff from the table and went to work. He made a pizza in 60 seconds flat. He pounded the dough with his fist. He stretched it on the back of his hands. He slapped it, flipped it back and forth and tossed it in the air. Then he ladled just the right amount of sauce and sprinkled two handfuls of mozzarella evenly across the crust.

It was like watching Picasso paint. Russo's pizza was picture-perfect, bubbling hot from the oven, just as the judges arrived.

It wasn't the first pizza he ever made.

“I started making pizzas in New Jersey, in my family's restaurant, when I was a kid,” he said. “I grew up in a kitchen. I've been making pizza all my life.”

Russo moved to Houston in the early ' 90s. He opened his first New York Pizzeria — it's still there, on the corner of Greenbriar and Holcombe — in 1994. Then he opened one downtown. Still there. Then Meyerland. Still there.

Now there are 32 New York Pizzerias in the Houston area. Russo owns five of them. The rest are franchised, but he maintains tight control, creating the menus, picking the ingredients, training the cooks.

“It's been pretty remarkable, the way we've expanded,” he said. “But now we're getting ready to make an even bigger leap. A few months ago, I marketed my concept at a food industry show in Dubai, and we're going to be opening New York Pizzerias in China next year.”

Russo said the pizza business has changed — but he hasn't. And his pizza won't.

“The pizza you get today at New York Pizzeria is exactly the same product as the first day we opened in 1994. It is identical. Not one thing is different.

“I get my flour from a supplier in New York. The cheese is from Wisconsin. The dry herbs and olive oil are from Italy. I have my own recipe for sausage, and we have a meat company in Ohio make it for us. We make our dough fresh in each restaurant every day. That's something the big chains can't do. Consistency and quality and putting out a product you're proud of. That's how you become successful.”

Russo is a traditionalist. “To me, pizza is plain cheese on a thin crust.” He makes a face at “gourmet” pizzas, like the Cheddar cheese with chicken, walnuts and dried cherries concoction being made a few tables over.

“They have two contests at the Pizza Expo, traditional and gourmet. I'm entered in both, but I'm really here to meet people and talk about the business and see what's going on with the industry. … Winning would be great, but it's more important just to stay connected and keep up with the times.”

Russo didn't win. First place in the traditional division went to Eddy Rossignoli from Venice, Italy. First prize in the gourmet category went to Theo Kalogeracos from Jakarta, Indonesia, and Perth, Australia. His winning pizza was covered with mozzarella cheese, prawns marinated in wild rocket pesto, prosciutto, lemon juice and garlic cream sauce.

“That just shows that pizza is worldwide now. It's different everywhere. If you put some New Yorkers in the same room with people from Chicago, it's like a pizza fist fight could break out. People are passionate about pizza. … When we get to China, we will sell our regular New York Pizzeria product, but we'll work in some Chinese spices.

“Pretty cool, New York Pizzeria from Houston, going to China, huh?”

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