BY ROCHELL VAN DEURZEN – sidedish.dmagazine.com
I am the first to admit that I tend to avoid chain restaurants. I am more readily willing to admit that I have a pizza addiction. Especially that thin, foldable, New York-style pizza.
When I tried Russo’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Richardson a while back, I didn’t anticipate being impressed. I met the owner, Anthony Russo, who was up from Houston for the day. He toured me around the kitchen and knew every nook, cranny, drawer, sauté pan, and tray like it was his own kitchen at home and not just another of his 30+ locations. That’s what gave me pause, because in my years in the restaurant business, I’ve never met an owner of even 2 restaurants that knew his way around a kitchen that well. And I think Anthony’s hands-on involvement with his business is what’s making it work so well for him.
That, and the food. I’ve been back several times for it. While the service isn’t always perfect, the food is always good. The ingredients aren’t processed, packaged junk, and he uses quality olive oil. He swears by using everything fresh in every single location of both concepts. The calzone won our Best of Big D in 2009. And every single store also ships in fresh ricotta cheesecake from Pasticceria Rocco in New York.
“If it’s not fresh, don’t serve it! That’s my rule,” he told me. It’s a family motto. The Russo family moved to New York from Italy in the 60s, and later moved to Texas. They opened their first restaurant in 1978 to bring New York Italian food to Texans, and it was a hit. Anthony was in that kitchen from a young age, and opened his New York Pizzeria in the 90s in Clear Lake. His concept was simple: an approachable pizzeria environment with the high-quality ingredients of a more upscale Italian restaurant. His business flourished in the Houston market, and in 2008 he started another concept, Russo’s Coal-Fired Pizza. With over 30 locations from Dubai to Hawaii (but mostly in Texas), you might expect a quality drop. But it’s just not there. The food is consistently good.
“Yes, it’s actually coal-fired pizza. You can see our oven. I went to another ‘coal-fired’ restaurant, with ‘coal’ right in their name, in North Dallas once. The oven doesn’t have coal! The owners thought it was too much of a hassle. How can they do that? You can really taste the difference,” Russo said.
He also has a heart for the gluten-free among us. He worked for 2 years on a recipe for a gluten-free crust, experimenting with different flours to achieve a thin crust with good texture. The base has that crunch from the oven, but the inside is still very chewy and moist, which is basically unheard of in the world of gluten-free restaurants. It’s made fresh in each location, as are all the pizza doughs and sauces. He offers multigrain and gluten-free pasta options. He visits his stores and makes sure the kitchens are keeping up to his standards.
So yes, he is building an empire. He is selling his own olive oils, canned tomatoes, and gluten-free crusts. The franchises are springing up everywhere. But Anthony is involved, he demands quality, he jumps on the line when he’s visiting his restaurants because he made the recipes himself.
Yes, I am genuinely impressed. This place has something going for it, and most chains lose quality as they grow. This one doesn’t seem to be losing anything. If thin-crust pizza is your thing (or calzones, or caprese, or great prosciutto), check it out.
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