By Sun Sentinel

Chef Anthony Russo, the founder of chef-driven dining concepts that include Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, has plans to expand his franchise throughout Florida, including Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach.

The restaurant has a location in Pembroke Pines (14910 Pines Blvd.) with its Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen chain.

“We’re excited to have more of a presence in Florida,” said Russo, who grew up in an Italian household in Galveston, Texas with parents who emigrated from Italy. “My parents came from Italy to New Jersey and I learned the trade in my mother’s kitchen. We always made homemade wine, salami and prosciutto. Everything was made in-house.”

“When I visited relatives in Italy, my aunt told me: ‘Whatever we grow in the garden is what we serve in the kitchen,’” he said.

Russo said he believes it is that emphasis on fresh, homemade ingredients that has made his restaurants and his franchise concept a success. He makes his own dough and pizza sauces and boasts that he doesn’t use a commissary.

In 1984, he opened his first restaurant, a 750-square-foot one-oven, two-table restaurant in Galveston where his parents had moved when he was 12.

Four years later, looking to expand, Russo went to the bank for a small business loan and was turned down a few times until an East Coast transplant had faith in his vision and loaned him money on a handshake to open Anthony’s Pizzeria in 1988.

Popular with transplanted Easterners, especially those from New York and New Jersey, Russo sold New York-style pizza by the slice, calzones and salads.

“It took off,” he said. Or, as he says on his website, he was “spinning pizza dough into culinary gold.”

Like the pizza, Russo built the franchise from scratch, created his own model with a simple concept and recipes.

“It’s all about the food,” said the father of five, including triplets.

Currently, Russo boasts 44 locations with 38 under development and has gone international with restaurants in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Franchise owners Eshraf (Alex) Eskander, a former accountant, and Vic Matthews, an attorney and commercial real estate broker, are happy with their decision to become owners.

Matthews, who owns the Russo’s New York Pizzeria franchise in League City, Texas with his business partner Mike Putnal, a retired Galveston police department captain, are going on their eighth year.

“We went into it as an investment opportunity,” Matthews said. “At that time, it was an up-and-coming franchise and we found the food to be incredible.”

He gives credit to Russo and said he is a hands-on business owner.

“This restaurant concept goes back to his Galveston pizza roots,” Matthews said. “He was always throwing the dough and on our opening day he was in the kitchen doing prep.”

Eskander, who runs the business with his wife Nivine, has been a franchise owner for a decade and recently signed on for another 10-year contract.

“My wife always had a dream to own her own restaurant. We met Anthony and ate at his restaurant,” said Eskander, who emigrated from Egypt in 1980 and was impressed with the food and decided to investigate further. “Anthony is a good person, who works hard to protect his brand and his recipes.”

Visit nypizzeria.com.

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