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.
Following their last night of business on Wednesday, they threw an employee appreciation party with close friends and family. One of the first close friends to arrive was Art Levine, longtime local and host of “Straight Talk with Art Levine” on Long Beach’s public access television.
“That’s it Art, it’s over,” Jack said as Art walked into the restaurant and shook the owner’s hand for the last time. “We’re done.” In Art’s opinion, it’s a shame.
“Every establishment is a reflection of the values and the personality of the owners. Jack and Vickie have created something that is much more than a restaurant. People love Jack and Vickie. This place has a warmth and a charm that is so special. Something you can’t find anywhere else.”
Jack and Vickie have created that charm by keeping the business a family. Their children, grandchildren, and cousins have all been a big part of the restaurant. Employees who weren’t blood family became blood family.
“I always hired based on, would this person be my friend? Are they nice, friendly, polite, family-oriented? Some of my cooks have been with me since we started. Thirty years. I just feel bad that they’ll have to find jobs now.”
Jack and Vickie, who actually met through the restaurant, are both longshoremen and have worked basically two careers for the longevity of the restaurant. They’ll miss so much about the restaurant—mostly the people—but they’ll also take this as a chance to enjoy the time away from owning a business that they’ve never experienced. There are currently no plans to re-open elsewhere.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business 40 years now, if you count the 10 years I did at Marie Callendars starting when I was 16. It’s tiring.”
Interestingly enough, the guy who trained Jack Russo to wash dishes 40 years ago when he first started at Marie Callendars went on to manage multiple stores and create a nice career for himself with the company. A week before Russo’s last day, he came into Jack’s restaurant for the first time and had no idea it was closing.
“He’d been meaning to come in for 30 years to see my restaurant but had just lived far away and been busy,” laughed Jack.
A lot of full-circle magic like that has gone on in these past three weeks since they notified the public of their closing. Jack’s also had a lot of time to reflect on the business. He’s pulled out all the old pictures of Long Beach and Naples in the restaurant, old photographs of couples dining on Valentine’s Day, and even the very first dollar his business ever made, signed by the very first customers to ever come into the restaurant.
One couple that Jack knew to be regulars of the restaurant for quite some time said something that surprised even Jack.
“Hey Jack,” they said, “Did you know we were your very first customers ever?”
Jack couldn’t believe it. He knew they came in a lot but had no idea they had been there from the beginning. He went to get the first dollar bill from the back of this restaurant and they all examined it. Sure enough, there was the couple’s signature. “Joe and Barbara Case.”
If that doesn’t speak to the kind of place Russo’s was, then nothing else will. Joe and Barbara Case were still regular, loyal, happy customers after 30 long years of food and service. The notion brought tears to Jack’s face.
Joe, Barbara, Jack, and Vickie took a picture in 2018 with the same dollar bill that had started the restaurant in 1988. And just like that, the story of Russo’s of Naples had come full circle. Ending 30 years later just as it had begun, with great food, quality service, family, and an unmistakable hint of charm.