Russo’s Neighborhood Ristorante and Bar served its last Pasta e Risotto on Wednesday, Nov. 7 after 30 years of providing delicious food, a warm atmosphere, and family service to the community in Naples and beyond.
As it had been for the last three weeks, the restaurant was packed with customers fiending for one last taste of the iconic Italian Ristorante and holding back tears while hugging the owners, servers, and staff that had become family.
Regulars Susie and Randy King sat on Russo’s popular dog-friendly patio (the second dog-friendly patio established in Long Beach, by the way) with their friend Melinda. Susie and Randy went to Russo’s at least once a week for the last 18 years.
“We’re going to miss our routine, but most of all we’re going to miss the stories,” Susie said. Her sentiments reflected the sentiments of many loyal customers experiencing their “last supper” at Russo’s Wednesday night.
The stories she will miss are those of the servers, whose lives have become intertwined with the customers.
“It’s like a family here. We know everyone and what’s going on in their lives and they know what’s going on in our lives,” Susie said. “They’re just wonderful people here. There’s so much love.”
Owners Jack and Vickie Russo were overwhelmed by the support from their family of customers, not only over the last three weeks (every night was a full house with a line out the door), but also over the last year and over the last 30 years.
“We’ve had our best year ever…even before all this happened,” Jack said. “Every calendar month out, business has been up almost 30 percent in some cases.”
Besides a great family atmosphere, the food at Russo’s was phenomenal. While each customer had a different favorite dish, everyone raved over their special, fresh-baked focaccia bread, which was served with a sun-dried tomato and olive oil unlike anywhere else.
On the last night, the kitchen was the busiest it’s ever been with customers trying to get their last taste of Russo’s Sicilian flare. Jack and his cooks couldn’t believe how many customers dined in to eat and ordered multiple meals to go so they could continue the Russo’s chapter of their life a little bit longer at home.
“This is all so sad and emotional, but it’s also pretty cool that we’re leaving this way. Not many restaurants get to go out on top like this. We’re truly on-top as a business right now. This definitely wasn’t how or when I wanted to go, but it does have a silver lining. These last few weeks have been truly amazing.”
So, why must Russo’s go? It comes down to a dispute with their landlord of well over 12 years.
Jack Russo opened “Pasta Al Dente” in the same location Russo’s stands today when he was 26 years old in 1988. He would later change the restaurant name to Russo’s to match his last name.
Now, 30 years later, Russo’s staff and loyal customers can attest to the fact that one of the staples of Russo’s atmosphere from the beginning, besides warmth, love, and family, was a leaky roof when it rained.
Almost from the inception of the restaurant, Jack fought his landlord over whose responsibility it was to fix the roof.
“When it rains, the roof leaks real bad, drywall falls down, and the restaurant becomes a dangerous place….Not only that, it’s just embarrassing for our restaurant,” Jack said.
About 12 years ago, when Jack’s lease needed to be renewed, conversations heated up. A management company got involved and said if Jack renewed the lease, the landlord would fix the roof. But when push came to shove, the landlord still wanted Jack to pay for the roof to be fixed.
“It’s not my building, it’s not my roof to fix,” said Jack. “It came down to principle. I wasn’t going to sign the lease if the landlord didn’t fix the roof.”
So how did they resolve the issue? They didn’t. Ownership didn’t fix the roof and Jack didn’t sign the lease. He continued to run his neighborhood ristorante and pay his rent for 12 years without ever signing a lease.
Then, in early September 2018, a man that Jack had never met before went to the restaurant, made some small talk, asked a few questions, then served Jack papers. Russo’s had 60 days to vacate the space.
Out of nowhere, out of the blue, the run was done. It came as complete shock to Jack.
The landlord proceeded to reach out during the waning days and hours of Russo’s tenancy to try and strike a deal after playing “hardball” with the 60 days notice. But, 12 years later, Jack still wouldn’t budge on his principle.
“It’s still about the roof. In every agreement he presents to me, he still wants me to pay for it. I shouldn’t have to pay to fix his roof.”
And so Russo’s is closed.