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Anthony Russo, Rooted in Tradition

Interviewed by Sara G. Stephens

As a young child, chef anthony helped his grandmother role dough for cannolis, carefully wrapping it around four-inch wooden broomsticks to get the right shape. Attention to detail and authenticity have been hallmarks of his career and his parenting.

HFM: The Russo family moved from New Jersey to Texas in 1978. Tell us about the family members who made this move, and why they made the move?

AR: My family moved from Paterson, New Jersey to Galveston, Texas in 1978 so my parents could open up Russo’s Italian Restaurant. My mom is from Sicily and my dad is from Naples. They saw a big opportunity to open a business in Texas at that time with the economy and they wanted to bring a taste of New York and Italy to the southwest. My parents still live in Galveston.

HFM: How old were you when you moved to Texas, and what were your first impressions of your new home, compared with your New York home?

AR: I was 11 years old when I moved to Texas. My first impressions were that Galveston was a very nice community, but I missed New Jersey, for sure. All of my relatives were still there and I our missed family gatherings.

HFM: From the early age of 12, you spent plenty of time in the kitchen with your family. How did this time influence you–from the obvious, professional aspects, to the more personal and family-oriented values you derived?

AR: I truly grew up at the family restaurant. When I was in school, both of my parents worked at the restaurant and I would go there everyday after school. It was my second home.

My time there was very special, not only because I was able to spend time with my family, but also because I learned all of our traditional family recipes that have been passed down from generations. My dad made Bolognese (meat) sauce, lasagna, gnocchi, and pasta from scratch, among many other recipes.

At home, we embraced that mentality and made everything from scratch. We never ate out. We had a garden in the backyard and we used all of the vegetables from the garden in our cuisine. We had cured meats hanging in the cellar that we used to make homemade prosciutto. We also made homemade wine and Italian sausage.

HFM: Your pizzas are all based on family recipes, handed down from generation to generation. Without sharing any secret ingredients, what makes these recipes special?

AR: The pizza recipes are so special since everything is made from scratch and the recipes have been passed down from generations. My most treasured recipe is Russo’s lasagna, which takes six to eight hours to prepare. The Bolognese sauce alone takes about eight hours to prepare. My dad would braise the vegetables and ground beef in red wine sauce, and use fresh pasta and fresh ricotta.

Another treasured recipe is gnocchi using fresh ingredients and extra virgin olive oil. Quality gnocchi pasta takes about two to three hours to prepare. Buying prepared gnocchi from the store does not have the same taste as preparing it yourself.

HFM: The quality of your pizzas is closely tied to the freshness of the ingredients you use. Do you extend the idea of fresh ingredients to your own, home cooking?

AR: Yes, I go to the local grocery store or farmers market to buy fresh ingredients, vegetables, fruits and herbs. For example, when I prepare tomato puree, I use tomatoes from the vine – the freshest possible ingredient I can find. I avoid all additives in my cuisine.

One recipe that is perfect for busy parents conscious of fresh ingredients is pasta with fresh tomato sauce. A quick and easy recipe, you can use fresh peeled tomatoes and throw them in a sauté pan with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook them down a bit and combine with fresh pasta. Once the pasta is fully cooked, finish with some grated Parmesan cheese. The entire recipe takes about eight minutes.

HFM: On that note, who does the majority of the cooking at home? Do the kids help?

AR: I do the majority of cooking at home and yes, my kids help as well. The triplets, Rocco, Vincent and Alice, 5 years old, will do things like crush tomatoes for fresh tomato sauce. My two-year-old, Raquel, can’t help out in the kitchen just yet, but will be when she is older. Anson, my 14-year old son, helps out by doing tasks like dicing onions.

HFM: Do you continue the “family time in the kitchen” tradition with your own family? Describe for us a typical evening in the Russo family kitchen.

AR: My weekends are reserved for family cooking time. Every Saturday, I go to the store with my children and pick out ingredients so we can cook together later that day and on Sunday. We usually cook grilled chicken or grilled steaks on Saturday and pasta on Sunday. When we make meals together as a family, my children enjoy it even more.

HFM: Have your kids demonstrated an interest in the culinary arts?

AR: I bring my children with me to the restaurant on the weekends. The triplets will get dough balls at the table so they can help make pizza. We do it together.

HFM: There are many facets to your profession as chef, restaurant owner and franchise owner. Which aspects of your career do you love most?

AR: I love cooking, for sure. I love spending time in the kitchen making cherished family recipes.

HFM: Where in Houston do you and your family like to spend time when you’re not working? Any favorite family hang-outs or activities?

AR: My kids are really involved in sports and YMCA activities. They are involved in softball leagues and basketball teams, among many others. We also enjoy going to movies and trying new restaurants, especially Mexican cuisine. My older son, Anson, plays polo at our family ranch in Hempstead on the weekends. Our family spends a good deal of time at the ranch, where we also have horses and cattle.

HFM: You brought a little bit of New York to Houston. Do you take a little bit of Houston with you when you visit New Jersey?

AR: If I’m going to see relatives in New Jersey, I bring them tamales and pecan pie. My cousins love to be surprised with tamales and I also make them breakfast tacos in the mornings. However, if we stay in New Jersey for more than a week, we miss Tex-Mex food and want to come back. Houston is all about family and has so much to offer.

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