Located in the College Park Retail District you can find Russo's New York Pizzeria. Russo's has been there for quite some time and now has expanded to other locations since this article was originally published. We arrived a little after 7:00 on a Friday evening, right in between two rushes of diners. Prior to our arrival, they had just seated parties at every booth - leaving us to opt for a table in order to accommodate ourselves and our guest. But we were grateful for the table as within minutes of our being seated, a waiting list had to be established that lasted for the next 30 minutes or so.
Our table was right along the 'main runway' and the constant traffic moved back and forth like a well oiled machine. We would have much rather been listening to some pleasant music or even cheesy "That's amore..." like songs. But as the night went on our conversation was more than enough to keep us entertained. Actually, we might go so far to say that the lack of music actually reduced the overall audible restaurant activity levels (ambient noise), which were low enough that we were able to talk at our normal speaking levels for most of the evening. When you enter Russo's New York Pizza notice the hominess* of the restaurant – something you may not expect from a pizza place located in a nondescript College Park strip center off of Highway 242 (the same shopping center as McAlister's Deli and Wang's Asian Fusion). In addition to the dining room that comfortably seats perhaps 75 or so, there are also a few tables out front for dining al fresco. Deep red walls are complemented by exposed red brick and accented by large framed black and white photography. Dim indirect lights situated over tables and beautiful, over-sized brown leather booths create a perfectly inviting and comfortable atmosphere. Admittedly, we have only dined at Russo's once (or maybe twice) before, prior to when the current owners began operations in this Italian Restaurant. But we were pleasantly surprised by the food and the service we enjoyed - it was easy to recognize the sometimes subtle, sometimes diverse, but seemingly all positive changes the new owners have implemented since we last visited several years ago.
We invited Carla Soriano to join us for dinner; a fellow member of The Woodlands/Spring Area Foodie Club who recently launched her own food blog. Since we had company, we were able to sample a little more of the menu than we typically do. After placing our drink order - one glass of house red ($6.00) and two bottles of Shiner ($4.50 each) - we decided to start with a selection from the appetizer menu while we looked over the rest of the menu.
Many of the salads are offered in two sizes and we opted to share the large size Caesar Salad. Russo's large Caesar Salad ($7.95) was unique in that it did not contain the usual Caesar salad ingredients. Moreover, it actually contained very few ingredients. It was composed of hearts of romaine lettuce, a generous amount of shredded purple cabbage, "Caesar dressing," a dusting of powdered Parmesan, and – that's it. The fresh flavor of the lettuce was bold and bright, and was the main flavor to be found in the bowl. That being said, the Caesar dressing was difficult to locate and even harder to taste. While the lettuce was damp and moist with what seemed to be a light oil, unfortunately we could hardly detect any taste of the familiar anchovy and garlic bite of a Caesar Salad. And who doesn't put croutons in a Caesar salad? Party foul!
Our order of Traditional Garlic Bread w/Cheese ($4.95) was a very soft 12" loaf of fresh-baked bread with a small amount of cheese and butter layered in the center. Mysteriously missing was flavor of garlic, in any one of its forms – neither chopped garlic, nor garlic slivers, or even garlic powder were detectable. Instead, flavors, textures, and appearances of oily goodness - although it was not clear if those flavors came from butter or olive oil - reigned. If a nice, soft bread is your goal, it will be achieved here. But if what you're looking for is hot, gooey, stretchy Mozzarella melted atop that bread when upgrading from the Traditional Garlic Bread ($2.95), you may be disappointed. While there was plenty of butter (oil?), there was only a sprinkling of cheese serving more as a nice "glue" for the top and bottom pieces of baguette rather than adding any flavor to the bread. We suggest that if the bread had been prepared and subsequently presented open-faced, it would have allowed for a better overall experience. But as the warm bread cooled, taking a piece of bread apart from the loaf was impossible to do without leaving the opposing piece without any toppings. The garlic bread does come with a small bowl of marinara, which we all agreed was fresh and tasty. All in all, we think that the bread could have been greatly improved if Russo's upped its garlic factor and toasted the bread open-face.
Attempting to get a pizza with toppings to please us all, we sampled The New York Village Pizza (Large, $22.95) – one of Russo's Specialty Pizzas that typically comes with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, black olives, bell peppers, Canadian bacon, hamburger, mozzarella cheese, and pizza sauce. We went sans mushrooms and added pineapple because we figured out very quickly that we were all pineapple-as-a-pizza-topping fans. Once again, the freshness of the ingredients definitely came through in every bite. All of the veggies had a bit of 'snap' left in them, evidence of being freshly chopped the same day. The amount of flavorful yet not overpowering sauce was just right as well, not too much or too little.
The hand tossed crust was light and tasty with just the right thickness, and all but the very center was cooked completely; though under such a heavy load of toppings, some under-cooking was within expectations. This Russo's Pizza was cooked more thoroughly than other pizzas we have sampled in the past. Carla deemed that it was a good pizza; the crust being a nice vessel for the colorful array of toppings and she especially enjoyed the Canadian bacon, which was cut up into generous pieces, as well as the pepperoni – which she found to be much better than your average slice of pepperoni. She, too, emphasized that the ingredients on our pizza didn't just look fresh – they were unquestionably fresh. While this pizza may not have unseated our current champion (Crust), it was most certainly a strong second.
I was simply mesmerized by the cake. In fact, my concentration at that point was so low, I can't even list the ingredients in the cake. What I do recall is this – the cake as a whole was delicious.
If you have ever eaten at one of the other Russo's Pizza Restaurants (there are 15 in Texas alone) and had dessert, you won't find one that serves those of the same caliber as The Woodlands location. Like many chain restaurants, the recipes are fixed and not to be deviated from by any of the franchise locations. A Russo's chain presidential figure recently visited with The Woodlands location and upon tasting the desserts from Celebrations and Sweet Creations - designated them as the official provider of desserts at Russo's in The Woodlands. With the exception of the Tiramasu, which is made in house, many of the desserts at Russo's New York Pizzeria are delivered fresh from what has become one of our favorite local bakeries, Celebrations and Sweet Creations in Magnolia. Our dessert of choice this evening was a generous slice of Italian Chocolate Cream Cake, with chocolate icing that was not in-your-face sweet, with some coconut and nuts on the outer edge. Shellie, the baker extraordinaire, also provides desserts at several other area locations, including a cake or two at Pallotta's Italian Grill in Oak Ridge North.
As we approached the end of our meal the manager stopped by to see how our evening had been; we'd only been there for three hours! We all felt so at ease with each other that the time quickly flew by - which can attest to how comfortable we were enjoying our dinner at Russo's. During the conversation he explained that the marinara is made in-house with only the freshest of ingredients, including tomatoes which are all crushed by hand every day. We find that attention to detail and freshness of product to be admirable.
So if you find yourself on the north side of The Woodlands and you've got a hankering for a good meal, you might just want to stop in at Russo's New York Pizzeria. Though we thought we did a decent job of sampling the menu, be forewarned there are a multitude of other options; dozens of appetizer, soup, and salad options, countless combinations of specialty and build-your-own pizzas - including gluten-free! - and an extensive menu of Piadina flatbread sandwiches and pasta dishes. And don't worry too much about that wait time, either. We were informed it's typically never that long, and if any wait is too much wait for you, you can order online for carry out or delivery.
Brio Tuscan Grill
Crust Pizza Panther Creek
Crust Pizza Company
Crust Pizza Alden Bridge
Luca & Leonardo
Mama Mia Italian
RC's New York Pizza
Russo's New York Pizza
Via Emilia Italian
Villa Emilia Due'
Zazza Pizza Cafe
Pizza in The Woodlands
* homey - having a feeling of home; cozy and comfortable; "the homely everyday atmosphere"; "a homey little inn" (return)