If it’s not a Japanese restaurant, it’s an Italian restaurant that’s opening in Riyadh. We’re not surprised. Pizzas and pastas are probably the most famous and versatile food groups that ever conquered the world. We’re fans, really, and we like that we have a lot of choices in Riyadh. A few weeks ago, we had the chance to try a newly-opened pizzeria located in the heart of the city upon the invitation of Cyma Aziz, tv host and presenter at Saudi TV2 along with her sister Nihad. It’s the first branch of this pioneering, fine dining establishment in Saudi Arabia and we couldn’t wait to try the New York-style pizzas of Russo’s New York Pizzeria.
Russo’s is a family Italian restaurant that opened in 1978 in New York. It was the brainchild of a couple who immigrated from Sicily and Naples to New York in 1962. Anthony Russo, their son, spent his young life in his parents kitchen and other influential Italian chefs to learn the ins and outs of cooking. His father’s phrase, “If you can’t make it fresh, don’t serve it!” has been his mantra ever since. He opened his first restaurant, Anthony’s Pizzeria” in Texas in the early 90s . He honed his skills further and brought his dream of bringing the real New York-style pizza to life. Today, Russo’s Pizzeria has several branches in the United States and the Middle East. Chef Anthony was in Riyadh during the opening week of his restaurant and we had the privilege of meeting and talking to him, along with the Saudi owner of Russo’s in Riyadh. We were really in for a treat!
Russo’s in Riyadh is very much accessible. It’s just along King Fahd Road and at the back of Kamps Bakery. We like the strategic location especially now that most new restaurants are opening in the “exits” which takes time getting to (hello Riyadh traffic!). The interiors of Russo’s is simple yet elegant with its black and white color scheme. The floor has vertical lines of black and white and I thought it was an optical illusion of some sort, haha. The couches have high backs perfect for comfortable slouching and chillaxing. The photos on the white walls are also in black and white and it gives the restaurants its sense of history and pride. They have a room with a round table for a group of eight to ten persons but they also have the booths for smaller groups. Their staff and well-trained and very attentive to our needs when we were there. Russo’s had their soft opening in the first week of January but they opened to the public on January 17, 2017.
Garlic bread in small square pieces opened our great dinner at Russo’s. Dipped in their sauce of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and parmesan cheese, these little chewy and crispy bread become a bomb of delightful flavors! These starters are followed by a steady stream of heavier appetizers. First up is Russo’s Famous Homemade Meatballs. These are two large Italian-style meatballs in Chianti-braised meat sauce. The meatballs are packed with protein but they’re soft and creamy with the sauce. It was a bit underwhelming but it’s still a good beginning to an epic meal.
The Eggplant Rollatini is my favorite appetizer that night. I was so surprised at how good this dish is considering I’m not fond of vegetables. The secret? It doesn’t taste like vegetable! Haha! The dish of lightly-breaded and fried stuffed eggplant with ricotta, all-natural mozzarella cheese and fresh basil with a tomato cream sauce is so good! The ingredients are great together and like I said, it didn’t taste like eggplants. It’s like a mash of cheese and cream and goodness in one bite. I couldn’t get enough of this. Definitely a scene stealer (considering pizza is the supposed to be the highlight of the restaurant).
The Calamari Fritti is another wonderful starter. The tender squid rings are seasoned with sea salt and pepper and lightly fried. It’s served with Russo’s homemade marinara sauce. Each ring is battered lightly and provides a good crisp and chewiness. I don’t eat squid tentacles and heads and seeing them so many in our plate is a turn off. I wish they served more rings than those but I can understand the need for balance. This a good appetizer if you’re thinking of ordering the meat-laden pizzas. Otherwise, order the Pescatore Pizza and skip this.
I was the lone person in our group to order soup. I was craving for some warmth to combat Riyadh’s cold weather so I went for the Mushroom Soup. OMG it was too salty! The soup has a thick consistency and doesn’t look appetizing with its grayish color but I was looking forward to the taste knowing that Mushroom Soup is basic and most restaurants has this down pat. However, Russo’s version is too salty. If they tone the saltiness down a bit, it will be delicious.
After the starters came the pastas. We ordered two with contrasting sauces: Ravioli Pomodoro, in its red, rich sauce, and Pesto Gnocchi in its green, herby sauce. I like the former over the latter. The jumbo cheese ravioli with fresh basil and Russo’s homemade marinara sauce tasted fresh with its flavors upped an ante. The cheese ravioli was so, so good and with the sauce, it was phenomenal! The Pesto Gnocchi is a good dish too but I felt like there was something lacking about its flavor. I love the chewy, soft gnocchi but the pesto sauce needed more depth and oomph for me to give up the Ravioli Pomodor and choose it as my favorite. All in all, the pastas are adequate. The servings are huge and definitely worth sharing (the cals).
And so we go to Russo’s heart and soul… the pizzas! We ordered the Pescatore Napoletana Pizza and their large pizza with two flavors which we chose: BBQ Chicken and Margaherita. The Aziz sisters went for their all-time favorite, Spicy Vegetarian Pizza. The Pescatore Pizza surprised us with its hefty seafood pieces and square shape. Nihad was so amazed at the square shape of the pizza. We were all happy with the flavor and texture of this pizza. The crust is thin and has the right smokiness that went well with the mussels and squid rings. It was a well-balanced pizza in terms of flavor.
I found the Margherita Pizza a bit lackluster, although that’s to be expected. I was just looking for a punch in its flavors. After all, it’s filled with Roma tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, garlic and olive oil. However, I didn’t get enough of its flavor in the slice that I tried. The BBQ Chicken is my favorite because it’s their version of Hawaiian Pizza. Yup, it has pineapple bits and chicken pieces. It’s the sweet and savory that my tastebuds always gravitate towards. The crispness of the crust of all the pizzas is spot-on.
The Spicy Vegetarian is a good option for those who are trying to let go of meat. It has a simple, nice taste that is cut once the spice factor comes kicking in. It’s a flavorful pizza that you can take home to your parents (because it’s healthy, haha).
If you’re a group of people, then order the 28-inch pizza! It’s huuuuuuge!!! We watched Chef Anthony flipped that humongous dough during his feature in Cyma and Nihad’s tv show and he’s a genius! He’s perfected the craft and we were honored that we got to meet him and tasted his food. Okay, so anyway, order the 28-inch pizza and try every gahd darn flavor there is in the menu! You can also order a pizza according to whatever you like. Customize the ingredients that go into your pizza, pick the kind of crust that you want and choose the sauce! Be as creative or crazy as you want.
We finished our dinner with a slice of their New York Cheesecake and Tiramisu. The cheesecake is the best New York cheesecake that we tasted in Riyadh. It’s rich and decadent and normally, we can’t finish one slice but we did, in small bites that began at the restaurant and finished at home. The Aziz sisters love this dessert and we can’t help but agree with their choice. The Tiramisu looked so sad in the plate. Haha! The edges were uneven and the presentation was sloppy. The ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese were okay in my books but we all couldn’t taste much of the coffee or Kahlua that should have seeped into the ladyfingers. Go for the cheesecake when ordering dessert at Russo’s.
We were so full by the time we bid goodbye to our hosts. We like the concept of Russo’s. It has a way of bringing families and friends together. Budget around SR 100 per person. Their food are great with high quality ingredients; all freshly-made and their dough, hand-stretched. If you’re looking for a new Italian restaurant in town. You know where to find it, Riyadhizens! We couldn’t give you more reasons to visit Russo’s. They’re all here.
Russo’s New York Pizzeria
King Fahd Road,
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [MAP]