My coming to know Joey Russo of Russo’s Bistro & Bar in Kitty Hawk occurred in three parts. Part One was an entertaining discussion honoring the OBX chef world, folks that local and visiting food lovers consider celebrities.
Praise flowed easily from Joey in his fast-talking Italian cadence, recounting success stories and lessons learned over the years from Outer Banks restaurant legends requiring no last name: Mike, Bob, Randolph, Amanda, Tony, Dan, Wes, Pok and many others. Russo brushes off the notion of celebrity chef-dom, though, making it clear he, they, are just like the rest of us, walking the earth and applying passion and intense hard work to a specific art. But there’s no doubt we all feel a little special and flattered when we get Joey’s attention and a kind word during his customary visit to our table at Russo’s. That’s all part of the experience here.
Russo’s is open for breakfast and lunch five days a week, but on Friday and Saturday nights, they welcome us in for dinner with definite style. The dining room operates with a steady hum of seamless energy. Joey’s wife and co-owner, Olga, exchanges warm hellos with guests as they’re seated. She and the servers flash confident smiles, knowing you’re in for a delicious evening. The dinnertime setting is at once elegant and homey, with white tablecloths and friendly but professional servers dressed in all black who look you in the eye while they describe the specials and answer questions. Don’t try to behave too much, though; you’re here to eat and have a good time. Russo’s dinner menu is a mix of Italian, Russian, Mediterranean, and coastal comfort food, complete with foie gras and chicken piccata but if it isn’t displaying what you’re craving – just ask for what you want. Joey, Olga, and their team are here to please.
Which brings me to Part Two: the pleasure of drinking great wine and eating food so good we’ll tell stories about it later. The dinner my husband and I had here was poetic. We began with the “Little Italy,” one of many cleverly named dishes on the menu giving a nod to Joey’s New York upbringing. Days later, I’m still thinking about this appetizer, wondering how they do it and why everyone else isn’t doing it. Burrata cheese — firm on the outside, viscous and creamy on the inside — breaded and fried sitting atop a racy, bold romesco sauce, surrounded by a gremolata full of garlic with a bright punch of lemon. Joey called it a “grown-up version of mozzarella sticks,” but it’s also the kind of dish I’d like to pop a bottle of wine for, take off my shoes, and eat cross-legged on the floor with someone I love.
For an entree, I had the Voodoo Snapper — delicate fish with a generous coating of Russo’s Jamaican jerk seasoning that’s sweet and savory, with just a hint of spice. Ripe cherry tomatoes were scattered on top, providing a juicy, fresh contrast to the robust jerk flavor. The tomato hollandaise sauce poured over top was smoky and lush, with just enough body to bring the dish together but not too much to get in the way. Underneath, soaking in the seasoning and sauciness, were little pearls of Israeli couscous. This plate of food was a dream; perfectly balanced and blissful. I also stole some bites from my husband’s U-10 Scallops — really just interested in the swoosh of truffled roasted corn purée on the plate, but I snuck a scallop in for good measure. It was pleasingly sweet with such an ideal, salty sear on the outside...it’s time for me to drop that “I don’t like scallops,” claim I walked in the door with.
We shared a bottle of Reata Chardonnay, which our adept server, Jamie, said they’d just gotten in. I’m a chardonnay fan through-and-through, and Reata was sublime with this meal. At some point, though, I will part with the money and get my hands on a bottle of Far Niente Cabernet just to try. Russo described it in a tangent about steak and chicken wings as a velvety cab, his arms erupting in goosebumps just talking about it. That seems like a pretty good endorsement to me.
For dessert, we shared a scratch made Black and Tan — a marriage of crème brûlée and pot de crème that I am completely smitten with. I’ll be chasing this meal, this contentment, for a long time. Or, just until my next visit to Russo’s.
Finally, Part Three of knowing Joey Russo: seeing what it means to be a good human. Look out for one another, remember what you learned in kindergarten, and leave the world a better place than you found it. Joey whimsically described how people come in and out of your life (or your restaurant) and leave little pieces of themselves behind for you. An innocuous comment Joey left with me changed my life a little bit in an instant and was the last thing I expected to uncover in an interview about food, but there you go. Without sharing any personal epiphanies, just know there’s something special about how this chef sees the world. How’s that for a tease?
Before we said goodbye, Joey sat across from me gazing around his dining room, and said, “So yeah, I work in the restaurant business ‘for a living’. But for a lifelong passion, I feed people. And through feeding people, I tell them stories. That’s what I really do ‘for a living’.”
That’s my story about this impressive bistro and its chef: one kind and passionate human cooking from the heart, telling stories that feed the souls of others.