OCEAN CITY – Tony Russo came to the United States with only a dollar in his pocket and couldn’t speak a lick of English, but next month he and his family are celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most well-known restaurants on the Boardwalk.
Russo, owner of Tony’s Pizza, came to the U.S. with his mother at the age of 19 in November of 1960 from Sicily.
When Russo arrived in the U.S., he worked at the Squire Café in Dundalk and by 1962 he came to Ocean City and opened Tony’s Pizza on 1st Street and the Boardwalk where they “had it all”, meaning the menu included pizza, subs, sandwiches and even breakfast. That location closed in 1968.
During that time, Russo returned to Dundalk and opened a Tony’s Pizza in 1964 on Wise Avenue and kept that location open until 1972.
On Jan. 15, 1967 Russo married his wife, Trudy, and in 1968 they opened the Roosevelt Hotel on N. Division Street and the Boardwalk. In 1970, half of the Roosevelt burned down and was redeveloped into a miniature golf course.
By this point, the Russo family began to grow. Tony and Trudy had their first child, Lisa, followed by Tony Jr., Angelo and Tina.
As luck would have it in 1972, the second half of the hotel became victim to a fire and the rest of the property became a single-story Tony’s Pizza, where it stands today.
At the time, Russo had no fire insurance and almost lost the property all together if it wasn’t for Taylor Bank, which loaned him the money to rebuild the restaurant.
The new restaurant’s menu at that time simply served pizza, soda and beer.
“It kept us very busy,” manager Carl Hoffman said. “Pizza and carry-out kept the place pretty packed all the time.”
The miniature golf course stood strong for three years until a hurricane came through Ocean City in 1977 and blew it away and the space was transformed into five retail stores that Russo ran for at least 20 years.
In 1997, the entire property was torn down and the Russo family started fresh. They rebuilt Tony’s Pizza as it is today with the kitchen and indoor seating on the first floor and a full bar and ocean deck on top, and the small pizza shop on the corner grew from seating 100 to almost 800.
When the dining room expanded, a full-fledged Italian menu was born.
“A lot of things happened in between,” Hoffman said. “There are a lot of good stories.”
Hoffman joined Russo at Tony’s Pizza in the summer of 1970 when he was still serving in the U.S. Air Force and before he was discharged he decided to come to Ocean City to have some fun.
“Tony let me stay in the Roosevelt Hotel and I worked for him. I made pizza,” Hoffman said. “I just liked Ocean City so much and Tony and I just clicked together.”
When the first fire happened, Hoffman returned to Ocean City from Ohio to give Russo a hand and 43 years later he has never left.
Looking back throughout time, Russo said Ocean City was different when he first came to the small town compared to what it is today.
Hoffman went on to say that in the 1960’s and early 70’s there were four main staples on the boardwalk –Phillips Seafood, Thrashers French Fries, Candy Kitchen and Tony’s Pizza.
“Tony’s Pizza became associated with Ocean City because they grew up together,” Hoffman said.
When The Dispatch asked Russo why he chose to build his empire around pizza, he replied, “I used to have a friend called Pizza John, so I said why can’t I be Tony’s Pizza.”
Hoffman explained that the owner of Squires Café, Joe Romiti, was the “best chef and restaurant operator” and personally taught Russo how to make pizza, along with his friend Pizza John and Paulo Calcara, who owns Lombardi’s on 94th Street.
Moving forward in time, in 1977 a Tony’s Pizza was opened in the Gold Coast Mall and operated until the mid-80s. There was another restaurant opened in the old Salisbury Mall from 1979-1986, followed by another location in North Salisbury Square on Route 13 from 1983-1985, and on Snow Hill Road in Salisbury from 1998-2003.
There was also Tony‘s Casa Di Pasta on 33rd Street in Ocean City, which the Russos daughter, Lisa, transformed and called it Angelo’s in memory of her brother who passed away in 2003 in a diving accident offshore.
Currently Russo owns several commercial properties throughout Ocean City besides Tony’s Pizza, including shopping strips on 15th Street bayside and Somerset Street and the boardwalk as well as Fresco’s on 81st Street.
Tony’s Pizzas 50th anniversary will be observed on Sept. 8 and the Russos plan on keeping the family business alive into the future, or as they say it “at least another 50 years.” The family has sent out invitations friends and supporters to help celebrate the occasion.