Selling New York style pizza to Texans may seem like a risky move, but New York native Anthony Russo has risen to the challenge.
The first-generation Italian owns Russo's New York Pizzeria that launched in 1992 in Houston but now has 25 locations throughout Texas, Arkansas and Florida.
Although success didn't come easy, Russo said customers love his pizza because he's stayed true to what his Sicily- and Naples-born parents taught him about the importance of fresh ingredients. He still lives by his dad's saying: "If you can't make it fresh, don't serve it."
The Russo family moved from New York to Texas in 1978 and opened a fine-dining Italian restaurant. Anthony Russo was in the kitchen by age 12 learning how to cook his parents' traditional dishes as well as New York style pizza. At age 17, Russo opened his first restaurant, Anthony's Pizzeria in a 1,500-foot square building in Clear Lake, Texas. He started with sandwiches and pizzas and eventually branched out into lasagna, fettuccini and gnocchi.
"Most of my customers were from New York, and they loved it," Russo said. "I brought in Italian ingredients like you can get in Sicily and Naples – the salamis, the Italian sausages, the cheeses, the basil. All the dough and sauce was made from scratch. That just makes a big difference. That's what I learned."
The New York transplants' love for giant slices inspired him to focus more on pizza. In 1992, he launched Russo's New York Pizzeria in Houston.
"I just thought it could work in Texas," he said.
He was right.
Again, most of his first customers were former New Yorkers who wanted to try a slice of home.
"They'd come in, and we'd start talking about New York," he said. "They'd take a bite of the pizza and were sold."
The road to franchising
Russo started franchising in 1998, six years after he opened the first location.
"It took me years to perfect it," he said. "I had to make sure I had all the right ingredients and training programs available. All these documents had to get produced. We got it down pretty good now though. It's pretty simple."
In fact, the process is going so well that Russo has 17 stores opening soon in the Middle East. And he's growing domestically, too.
"Our growth even in these economic times has been pretty good," Russo said. "We have some really good franchisees, who know that they have to spend money on the right ingredients to serve the right food."
In 2008, Russo created a new concept, Russo's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, an upscale pizzeria and wine bar that is also available as a franchise opportunity.
"You can open with the pizzeria in a smaller area, but with the coal-fired concept you need a larger area, because the oven is so big," Russo said about. It now has locations in Corpus Christi and Dallas and will soon open in Florida, Arkansas and Houston.
Not changing with the times
Russo said it seems even pizza served in New York isn't what grew up eating. His goal is to sell "true New York style" pizza in his restaurants.
"I guess back then, Little Italy was larger; it had more of a presence," he said. "It's not the same product out there anymore. It's something about the sauces, and it's smaller. It's kind of changed, but I kept it the same and didn't change the quality. I stayed consistent, and customers really appreciated that."
Russo believes dedication to high-quality ingredients is a major part of running a successful restaurant.
"If your product is good you will succeed, but that can be hard for some," he said. "If the high-quality ingredients are not there, you'll have to start all over again. You have to make sure the food is fantastic."
The lessons his parents taught him about the importance of fresh ingredients are priceless, he said.
"I knew what cheese, what balsamic vinegar, what flour to use," Russo said. "You have to spend more money on the food. Trying to not spend so much money by buying cheap pepperoni is not gonna save you 2 or 3 cents at the end of the day."