Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Russo's New York Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen (Houston TX)

On a recent Texas road trip, we had several days in Houston. Of course, we wanted to find and eat the best pizza there. The available research on Houston pizza is scant, even though there seems to be a surprising number of worthy destinations. We narrowed our list to include Pink's Pizza, Fuzzy's (where Obama ate when in town), Grimaldi's, Luigi's, Coppa, Dolce Vita, Bombay Pizza Co, Pizaro's, and Russo's. 
Our three pies at Russo's

We've had Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, so trying the Texas outpost was not a priority. Fuzzy's gets a lot of bad reviews, and we also let geography enter our decision. Dolce Vita was my first choice, but it's closed on Mondays and that was our pie day. Pink's was a strong contender and I really wanted to try it, but I thought that it would be interesting to compare the small-chain coal-oven Russo's to the small-chain Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza that I've enjoyed in both Florida and Pennsylvania (review HERE). 
Russo's, Katy Freeway, Houston

Interior bar

Interior dining area

We chose a Russo's location along the service road of the Katy Freeway (there are several in the Houston area). We had seven in our party, and we began with two salads for sharing. The Greek salad (romaine, feta cheese, a few other garden vegetables, and balsamic vinaigrette dressing) was fresh, but not memorable. Better was the Cucumber salad, with cucumbers, roma tomatoes, feta, onion, kalamata olives, pepperoncini and fresh garlic, tossed with Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.
Having fun even before the pizza arrives

Cucumber salad

Greek salad

Russo's, although named for its coal-fired "New York" style pizza, also offers "Pizza Napoletana."  The round NY pie has a thin, foldable crust; the Neapolitan is a smaller square, with a thinner and crisper crust. I was skeptical about "crisp" applying to a Neapolitan pie, but it had great appeal and it comes out of the same coal-fired oven.
Neapolitan with garlic-and-oil, red onions, soppressata, and portobello mushrooms

For each pizza, you can choose from a set list of specialty pies, or you can custom-craft your own. We took that "Soho" option to craft two different Neapolitan pies, by which you can choose up to 3 toppings with homemade garlic-and-oil or tomato sauce.

For Neapolitan #1, we went with garlic-and-oil, red onions, soppressata, and portobello mushrooms. No cheese, no red sauce!
Mona Lisa Neapolitan

Neapolitan #2 was the simple "Mona Lisa" which in most pizzerias would be the Margherita: homemade pizza sauce, sliced bufalo mozzarella, fresh basil, oregano and Sicilian extra virgin olive oil. I was happy to learn that they add the basil post-bake. As much as I enjoyed the nice Margherita pizza at Pieous (review HERE) in Austin just a few days earlier, the basil suffered from being both limp and charred).
New York Pie

Our group was big enough to justify a third pie, and we chose for Pie #3 a New York "Margherita" pie (despite the apparent contradiction in terms). We added sausage (crumbles extracted from actual link sausage) to the base ingredients: Roma tomatoes, fresh basil, all-natural mozzarella cheese, garlic, and organic extra virgin olive oil.
A New York slice

Superb char under that NY pie
Houston natives Lougen and Helen assess the NY pie

The New York pie was very authentic, and reminded me of the New York style so lovingly crafted by Tony Erol at Wiseguy NY Pizza in Washington DC (review HERE). It had a lot of cheese, decent sausage, tasty if not memorable sauce, and the classic foldable crust. Underneath, it gained extra character from its coal-oven birth. This far west, it's hard to imagine finding a more authentic NY slice. Still, this was my least-favorite pie of the night, mostly because I prefer a thinner, crisper, sturdier crust in the Trenton or New Haven style.
A slice of Neapolitan #1

David prefers the Neapolitan

We all loved the other two Neapolitan square pies. I judged them about equal in appeal, but most of the others preferred Neapolitan #1. Because the toppings were few and light, the crust was able to shine. It was more akin to a fabulous flatbread than a Neapolitan crust, but why quibble? It was crisp, sturdy, not wet anywhere, golden brown, cooked perfectly, and delicious all by itself. The onions, portobello slices, and soppressata were in harmony riding on top. Was it pizza?  Who cares, it was scrumptious!
A slice of Neapolitan #2

Transplanted New Yorker Stephy likes this Houston pie

Underside char on the Neapolitan

Neapolitan #2 was a more traditional pie, with red sauce, bufalo mozz, basil, and olive oil. The crust was just like Neapolitan #1; the sauce and other toppings were applied judiciously so that the crust was not overwhelmed, weighted down, or made soggy. The flavors were excellent - tangy sauce, creamy mozz, and the freshness of the post-bake basil. Exactly what good pizza tastes like.
Houston Native Laurie votes for Neapolitan

The Oven

We're gonna rate the NY pie a 7, and both Neapolitans 8.5. Very nice stuff, especially the crust on the Neapolitans. It's not quite as magical as the coal-oven pizza at Anthony's Coal-Fired, but it's destination pie despite the fact that this chain has over 25 locations. Bravo!

Russo's NY Coal-Fired Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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