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July 9, 2014


By geographically challenged townie calculus, Ewa Beach is the same as Kapolei, so one starts wondering how one more Italian restaurant will be able to compete with those already in place, like Assaggio and Le Nonne.

Of course, for those who live in Ewa, the distance to Kapolei is the equivalent of driving from Liliha to Waikiki or Chinatown to Kaimuki. When you live in a particular neighborhood, you sometimes don't want to go far for food, and 4 miles might as well be Siberia. I have friends who say that if not for their significant others, they would starve on those days they feel too lazy to leave the house.

So, the west side has one more Italian restaurant now that Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen has opened in the new Laulani Village in Ewa Beach, home to Safeway, City Mill, Ross, Walgreens and Petco.

First-generation Italian Anthony Russo opened his first restaurant, Anthony's Pizzeria, in 1978 after moving from New York to Clear Lake, Texas, where New York-style Italian cuisine and pizzas were hard to find. He also expanded into Houston by opening Cafe Anthony and the upscale Italian Russo Cafe Anthony. Soon he was franchising his pizzeria concept, and in 2008 launched Russo's Coal-Fired Pizzeria as a second franchise, combining pizzas with casual fine dining in a nonfussy, family-friendly environment.

Locally, Robert Carlisle is the owner and operator of the Ewa Beach Russo's, and I think bringing it to the west side is genius. Middle-of-the-road fare doesn't make Russo's a destination restaurant for outliers, but the food here is a cut above typical franchise fare, making this a nice addition to the bedroom community. It's special enough for holidays, parties and anniversaries, and accessible enough for typical weeknights when you just want to pick up a pizza or don't want to cook.

Stone floors, warm colors and tiled countertops give Russo's a simultaneously welcoming, casual and sophisticated vibe. You'll sit down to a menu with such vast offerings that you may have trouble deciding what to order. For starters there are crowd-pleasing coal-fired garlic knots ($7.95), though you're also offered a complimentary basket of herbed focaccia with oil and balsamic vinegar, so I don't know if you'd want to double up on carbs, particularly if you're also thinking about ordering a pizza.

Calamari fritti ($10.95) is typical, but enhanced by a sprinkling of garlic and herbs. Coal-fired wings ($10.95) have the tang of vinegar and come with two sauces so you have the option of cool ranch or thin, vinegary Tabasco meets Buffalo-style hot sauce. Best of the bunch was an order of meatballs pomodoro ($5.95), coated in a sauce of chianti-marinara, with sliced mushrooms and chopped basil. The two meatballs were spiked with garlic and herbs for flavor throughout.

Salads read more impressive than they are, mostly comprising romaine lettuce with a small sprinkling of mentioned ingredients. The Mediterranean ($6.95 small, $12.95 large) has artichoke hearts, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes and gorgonzola.

Also offered are sandwiches and flatbreads, though most people will gravitate toward the pizzas and pastas.

I love the crisp, cracker-textured thin crusts of the pizza here, though they tend to get soggy toward the center. There are 17 specialty pizzas and six Neapolitan square pizzas, and you're also welcome to create your own pizza, starting at $15.95 and $2 per topping for a medium (12-inch) pizza or $2.95 per topping for a large (16-inch) pizza. There are 34 toppings to choose from, including basics of Italian sausage, Canadian bacon and mushrooms, to options of Angus beef, sopressata salami and kalua pulled pork.

The New York Village specialty pizza ($21.95 medium/$24.95 large) sets the standard with its classic combination of light tomato sauce, crumbled Italian sausage, pepperoni, beef, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, black olives, roasted peppers and mozzarella.

When it comes to pastas, I find the basic marinara sauce rather flat here, which suits those diners who can't stomach much garlic, onions and basil. So I was surprised by the chicken puttanesca ($15.95), with penne pasta and marinara in which you can actually taste the desired anchovy, more than at other Italian restaurants in town. Still, it lacked a spicy kick, though you can add red pepper flakes at the table. For restaurateurs it's better for customers to add their own spice to taste.

Chicken in marsala sauce over fettuccine ($17.95) was nice and tender, though not all the wine had burned off the marsala sauce. You won't find the kind of meat that scares nonfoodies, like veal and lamb. So instead of veal saltimbocca or veal picatta, you get chicken, at $17.95 and $18.95, respectively.

Gnocchi ($15.95) here is heavy and doughy, served in a thick, creamy pesto sauce. The best thing about the sauce was the crunch of pine nuts.

For dessert I went for the one thing made in-house: tiramisu with its espresso- and Kahlua-soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone tidily layered in a cup. It seemed to disappear in one quick gulp.

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