When Nicole Russell first acquired a love for pizza, the Queens, New York native was just a teenager. She grew up in a home with a vegan father and a mom who cooked all the time, therefore, eating out wasn’t common for or encouraged by her family. So when she would make her extensive commute home from school (she lived in a two-fare zone where you have to take a bus to the train), she cherished the opportunity to grab a slice from a local pizzeria. It became a part of her routine to get a slice with extra cheese, extra garlic, and a grape soda every single day at Gino’s Pizza in Far Rockaway.
“It was a little pizza shop on my avenue and they [were] just a regular pizza shop,” Russell tells ESSENCE. “They had the beef patty, Italian ice sign in the window and we used to stop there every day after school.”
As she became an adult though, her favorite pizzeria switched ownership and the taste of the pies changed. Other pizza shops she tried couldn’t compare due to unimpressive cheeses. Eating pizza was no longer the treat she remembered. By 2013, Russell found herself in a state of transition, in between jobs and trying to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy damaged her home. She was baking breads and selling them to family and friends, everything from Jamaican hard dough, to sourdough. But as she found herself craving something like the extra cheese and extra garlic slice from her adolescent years, she decided to give her breads a break and try something different.
“I was like, ‘You know what? Let me try to make pizza dough,” she says. “So I started watching videos and reading articles. I already was familiar with the bread-making process. So after a couple of months, I just started making pizza two to three times a week.”
To her surprise, her occasional pizza was getting rave reviews from the few people she had try it. Her sister, the construction worker fixing her home, everyone who had a slice wanted another. Before she knew it, what started out as a fun challenge became not only a lucrative business, but also a passion of Russell’s.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to be The Last Dragon of pizza,'” she says, inspired by the 1985 film. “I’m on a quest to be the master of pizza. Like Bruce Leroy was on a quest to reach the final level, I am on a quest to reach the final level of pizza. So, that’s how Last Dragon Pizza was formed.”
She would operate Last Dragon Pizza, her own pizzeria, out of her home in Queens, and it attracted a following that would bring in customers from around the country and even from across the pond. Her menu, filled with cultural staples like tandoori chicken and shrimp, Asian barbecue, Philly cheesesteak and jerk chicken, for example, took off. She went from making a few pizzas during the week to making more than 50 in a day due to demand and even shipping pizza across the country.
The notoriety and success has allowed for more opportunities to open up. Russell is currently the star and host of Complex Networks‘ new First We Feast show, Pizza Wars. The series is a competition where Russell goes head to head in feats of grand pizza-making proportions with some of the industry’s burgeoning and most popular pizzaiolos. You are entertained while watching, but also learn a lot, like how fermentation works with making pizza and what the pulsing method is. She is the face of the series (Russell is delightful on it by the way), which is a major accomplishment when one considers that when some think of pizza, they think of Italy and white men — not a Black woman from Far Rockaway. The importance of her presence, in this way, isn’t lost on the pizza maker.
“When I first went to Pizza Expo for the first time in 2018, I didn’t see anybody really that was Black, number one. If I did, they were spectators, number two. If I did, they were helping somebody else’s business, number three. And I didn’t see any women really being represented that year when I went,” she says. “There’s a lot more Black representation now in 2021, than when I started. So I think people need to see it to do it. And if I didn’t see someone doing it, I don’t think I would have known I could do it.”
Russell makes it clear that while her pizza pies have become some of the most sought-after and she’s doing shows now, it wasn’t easy to get to this point. She doesn’t forget where she came from. The success took years, support and instruction from the Italian community (whom she says have been “gracious” to her), and at one point, the complete exhaustion of her finances. But she bet on herself and took the risks, and it was all worth it.
I studied my craft and I think that’s why I’m still respected,” she says. “You’re going to make it based on your persistence, your consistency, and your sales ability. If it wasn’t for me believing in it and keep pushing and keep pushing and finding that customer and having that customer come back and tell another person and another person, I don’t think I would be in the position I am today. And I’m in a good position right now. I mean, life is going great and it’s going to get better.”
New episodes of Pizza Wars air every Monday at 11AM EST on YouTube and Complex.com.