Pizza is a $128 billion business worldwide.
Chef Anthony Russo, who started out as a pre-teen washing dishes in his family’s Galveston restaurant, each year steadily takes a bigger piece of that pie.
Russo, the son of first-generation Italian immigrants, grew up in a home where the kitchen was the center of family life, he said.
His family moved to Galveston in 1978. His father opened Russo’s Italian Restaurant. By age 12, he was learning family recipes from relatives who flew in from Naples and Sicily each summer. Russo learned how to prepare classic entrees from different regions in Italy from those relatives.
“That was my learning, working with great chefs,” he said.
He developed a love for making pizza and scachatta, a stuffed pizza similar to a calzone, he said.
Russo at age 18 went on to open his first pizza restaurant — Anthony’s Pizzeria — in the Clear Lake area. He later opened the upscale Café Anthony in Houston.
In 1992, he opened Russo’s New York Pizzeria in Houston, near the Texas Medical Center. Before then, it was hard to find authentic New York-style pizza and the restaurant quickly developed a following, he said. In 1998, Russo began franchising the concept, which has restaurants in Galveston and League City.
Russo’s company, which uses only fresh ingredients in food made from scratch on site, has grown to two Italian restaurant brands with the introduction of Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen in 2008. His company has nearly 50 restaurants in the United States and Middle East.
In 2016, the company launched a line of frozen gourmet pizzas in domestic grocery stores.
Russo, 52, owns a high-rise condominium on the island, where he and family visit often.
Russo and his wife, Andrea, are parents to 8-year-old triplets Vincent, Rocco and Alice, 5-year-old daughter, Raquel, and 18-year-old son, Anson.
The Daily News visited with Russo about his career and future.
Q: What’s your first food memory?
A: Making fresh, homemade food at the house.
Q: What was your first restaurant job?
A: I was washing dishes.
Q: What did you learn in Galveston that still serves you today?
A: My parents made everything from scratch — homemade pasta, meat sauce, lasagna, cannoli, their own chicken stock, eggplant Parmesan …
We didn’t buy pre-made or frozen and it was a lot of hard work. But I enjoyed it, in the kitchen, washing dishes and watching how they made stuff. I helped them do the prep work, that’s what got me started.
Q: Do you still visit Galveston?
A: We’re always down there. We like the coast; we like the small beach town. We come down on the weekends. My mom still lives in Galveston.
Q: What was your first year in business with Russo’s New York Pizzeria like?
A: It was exciting. Transplants from New York would come in asking how we were making New York pizza. It wasn’t about the water. It was the ingredients — the right flour and the right cheese.
Q: Was it difficult to franchise the concept?
A: I was training new people who wanted to be entrepreneurs. I felt like I was helping them succeed without the guess work. I just applied experiences that worked for me. It was kind of rewarding — they owned it but I was making money, too.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of franchising?
A: I didn’t have training documents, no kitchen SOPs (standard operation procedures). I kind of did it on my own, that was challenging. But I did it by scratch. I had no choice, I had to make it happen.
Q: Russo’s New York Pizzeria operates seven restaurants in the United Arab Emirates and one in Saudi Arabia. What attracted you to those markets?
A: What surprised me was that at the national pizza chains that I’ve eaten at there, they were using spicy ketchup for sauce on their pizza. I was eating pizza with a friend and called a manager over and asked what they used and he said spicy ketchup sauce. Ketchup that was pre-made. I said, ‘What about the pizza dough?’ He said, ‘We don’t make the dough here.’ The difference between our pizza and the others is night and day.
Q: You started eight years ago in Dubai? Was it difficult to open a franchise there?
A: It took a year and a half to open a franchise, the setting up, the logistics, exporting products, sourcing ingredients. I made sure the dough and sauce were fresh and made in-house.
Q: Was entering the frozen pizza market difficult?
A: It’s so competitive. We make a gluten-free pizza. There weren’t that many good choices out there. The hardest part was making the appointments with the buyers. But once the buyer tasted it, the product sold itself. We’re in Randalls, Kroger, H-E-B … .
Q: What’s your biggest challenge as a business owner?
A: Staffing and training new people. We go through it like everyone else. You’ve got to find the right match and find the right staff and the right energy.
Q: Are you a good boss?
A: I give everyone an opportunity. I think that’s important. Take care of your employees, and they’re going to take care of you.
Q: What kind of business advice do you give others?
A: You have to enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you’re not going to be successful. You have to believe in the product and have to believe you’ll be able to do it.
Q: Who do you admire?
A: Bill Gates, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group. These guys are entrepreneurs. I admire that they started their businesses from nothing. When you have the drive to work and be successful, that’s what I admire the most.
Q: How many hours do you work a week?
A: 50 or 60, it depends. I’ve got the passion for it. I don’t see it as work.
Q: How do you find work-life balance?
A: I take care of employees and I can rely on staff when I travel. I spend time with family, we travel together. You’ve got to have a good balance with work and home to be successful. You don’t want work to take away from your family. Work smarter so you can spend time with your family. You don’t want to get lost in the job. It’s happened before. I had to step back. You have to trust your employees.
Q: What do you see for the company in five years?
A: 100-plus locations. Yeah, absolutely.