Michael Russo is surrounded by mustaches.
Inside Russo’s House of Pizza, which he has owned for about a year, there is a stuffed bear on the counter sporting a chef hat and a gloriously full mustache.
Signs hang on his walls that read things like “Mangia!” and “Hot Fresh Pizza,” all with a smiling, mustachioed chef. And then there’s Michael’s father and one of his only employees, Dr. Roger Russo, who wears a thick mustache that is perhaps best described as Ron Swanson-esque.
The only place Michael Russo can’t find a mustache is on the area between the bottom of his nose and top of his mouth.
“I can’t grow one,” he said. “It just won’t happen.”
Still, that’s not stopping Russo from bringing even more mustache power into his pizzeria. While he bought the pizzeria on the Pearl River-Nanuet border about a year ago, up until this month is was named Pies On Pizza.
On Sept. 1 of this year, he officially changed the name to Russo’s House of Pizza, and to celebrate, gave away a free fake mustache with every order of a pie.
“I figured everything else in here had a mustache, so it seemed like a fun giveaway and a way to celebrate the name change,” he said.
Russo, 26, of Pomona, said he wanted some time under the old name to make mistakes, build a following and figure out what he wanted to define his pizzeria. There were a few burnt pies along the way, but Russo knew early on what he wanted.
“I wanted to keep it simple. The simpler the better,” he said. “We’re not a diner. Sometimes you go to a diner, and if you don’t know what you’re in the mood for, you can look at those huge menus forever. And you see that in other pizzerias now. I didn’t want that.”
And so Russo keeps his menu simple: pizza, calzones, some heroes, Italian ices, zepoli’s. His pies are thin crust. Russo said everything is made to order, and he doesn’t cook food and leave it out until someone orders it. He’ll also make a pie with anything on it that people want, just as long as he has the ingredients.
“The weirder the better for me,” he said. “It’s shouldn’t be what I feel like cooking today that people eat. It should be what they want to eat today.”
He said one of his most popular slices so far is the chicken, bacon and ranch slice. He’s also made bacon and meatball and chicken pineapple barbecue pies.
While Russo himself has never owned a pizzeria, he has experience in various other restaurants. His grandparents owned House of Pizza in West Nyack and his aunt used to own House of Pizza in Pearl River.
His father works as a chiropractor out of Congers and founded Stay Fit Seniors, a free training circuit for his seniors to use. Russo’s mother, Ginny Russo, owned a tanning salon for more than a decade. Both of Russo’s parents work with him, helping out various aspects of the pizzeria, including his mother making the sauces. His parents aren’t surprised Michael turned out to be a business owner.
“Michael, we knew was going to paint his own picture,” Roger Russo said. “He always wanted to paint his own picture, not somebody else’s.”
His mother agreed.
“He was always very outgoing,” Ginny Russo said. “He was fascinated with acting at a young age.”
Russo has done a bit of acting so far. He appeared in the Will Ferrell film “The Other Guys” in a funeral scene and on the TV program “Jackass” when the show took over MTV for 24 hours straight. Russo appeared as a “party boy” in a scene dancing throughout Times Square in a thong.
“Maybe a bit down the line, if the pizzeria is more settled, I’d like to get back into acting a little bit,” Russo said. “Right now I can’t, though. Right now I’m married to this place.
It’s his experience acting and personality that makes Russo’s father think his son will be a great business owner.
“He’s great with customer relations,” said Roger Russo. “He’s very personable and just great interacting with people.”
He’s also dedicated to his customers, Roger Russo added.
“Even if we’re going to close, Michael will stay open if the phones are still ringing,” he said.
Russo said that if things go well, he might like to open a second location in Rockland. For Russo, part of the appeal of owning the pizzeria, or multiple pizzerias, is being his own boss.
“Me and working for someone doesn’t work. I like to lead,” he said. “Not knowing what comes tomorrow is the best challenge.”
Russo’s House of Pizza is located at 2 Veterans Parkway, Pearl River. It’s phone number is 735-0867. It’s open Monday-Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 4-8 p.m.