Chef Anthony Russo's Empire Grows with Microbrewery Concept
Beer and pizza go hand-in-hand, so it’s only natural for a pizza place to offer a few brews on a drink menu or for a brewery to serve pizza. Chef Anthony Russo has decided to take the classic pairing to the next level with his new concept: Russo’s New York Italia Pizza Kitchen & Brewery.
Russo found many Texan breweries lacked a great menu or any food options at all. With the new brand, Russo believes he’s discovered a way to balance made-from-scratch Italian food and craft beer in one place.
Inside the new Italian restaurant will be the concept’s own microbrewery, which will produce four exclusive beers for the venue along with Russo’s other properties. Russo brought in a brewmaster to ensure the flavors of the brews are specifically crafted for the restaurant. Of the four beers, three will remain on tap year-round and the fourth will be a seasonal option that rolls out with the release of the seasonal menu.
Russo, whose company also includes Russo’s New York Pizzeria and the full-service Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, took over a year to develop this new concept. The two-story building will have about 4,000 square feet of space and will be built from the ground up in Houston. He expects future locations to have a floorplan of at least 4,000 square feet, if not more.
Construction of the new restaurant is set to begin this summer with an opening scheduled for the end of 2019. This is the first of many locations Russo hopes to open over the next few years. Russo says he believes they will open at least 20 in the next six years.
The thoughtful design of the concept features an open kitchen and glass walls that allow customers to see behind the scenes as they dine.
“You can watch the pizza guy make pizza,” Russo says. “Or you can watch the cooks make pasta. It’s an open kitchen all throughout the restaurant."
A full bottling facility will be built next to the microbrewery that lets the company distribute the beer in bottles and kegs to other Russo’s concepts.
“It’s kind of a show place in one extent because of the customer experience,” Russo says. “When they’re coming to Russo’s not only are you going to get fresh made Italian entrees but we brew our own beers.”
The Russo tradition of using fresh ingredients—some imported directly from Italy—will continue in the new brand. And while the menu will highlight some of the classic dishes Russo’s is known for, Russo is also introducing some new flavors and innovative dishes to the brewery’s menu. The pizza lineup will feature a truffle mushroom pizza and a proscuitto, arugula, and burrata pizza.
The brewery is also reinventing brewery snacks. Customers will be able to choose from antipasto and cheese plates—featuring imported Gorgonzola and parmigiano reggiano— to pair with their brews.
“We’ll have some things—like really unique stuff—that you really can’t find in a typical brewery concept so we want to bring that into our new location,” Russo says.
For customers already familiar with the existing Russo’s brand, the menu at the Pizza Kitchen & Brewery will feature some of the company’s classic dishes—lasagna, fettuccini alfredo, baked ziti and veal marsala.
“We feel that it’s important to have our staple menu items at the brewery,” Russo says.
A new option for franchisees
In 2018, Russo’s Restaurants hit the 50-location milestone. While developing the new concept, Russo wanted a unique restaurant that would attract guests and new franchisees in fresh markets and help existing franchisees grow their footprint in current markets.
“I've been to breweries throughout Texas, but you don't have the food that goes with that, so I think it's a unique opportunity that we could target qualified franchisees that are looking for something unique,” Russo says. “I think a pizzeria with the brewery and fresh scratch kitchen would be an awesome combination for an investor to open up.”
Russo has already signed deals to open the first three breweries. Two of the new locations will open in Houston with the third debuting in College Station, Texas. Just like other Russo’s locations, Russo believes the brewery concept will work well across the Lone Star State. “This is a thriving state,” he says.
He plans on targeting Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin as the next phase of expansion.
Once the first brewery is open, Russo plans on using it as a prototype for franchisees to see what they could open in their own markets. It’s one thing to show operators a rendering of what they could invest in, but it’s a whole different experience when franchisees are able to feel, taste, and explore a concept in the prototype setting.
Russo admits the new brand is a different level of investment compared to his other restaurants. “It is a microbrewery after all,” he says. But with the ability to tour the prototype, he thinks franchisees will sign up.
“It’s not your typical pizza place where you dine in or pick up or do delivery,” Russo says. “It’s more of an experience of casual fine dining to the next level with the unique beer selection and menu items.”
Russo’s Restaurants has a mix of corporate and franchised locations across Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida. Russo sees the brewery having the same potential to grow across the states or even go international.
“I think this is new stuff and we'll see where it takes us,” Russo says.