When he moved to Iowa from Naples, Italy, Gennaro Rusciano brought a slice of life from home with him.
Step into his restaurant, Rusciano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli, in North Liberty, and you can get a taste of the culinary traditions his family has been immersed in for generations. The smells and flavors of wood-fired pizza, he said, keep homesickness at bay.
“I really feel at home when I’m here, doing what I’ve done for most of my life,” he said. “I used to say I was born under the oven.”
Rusciano specializes in Neapolitan-style pizza, a style and method of pizza making that recently earned the distinction of world heritage status by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“It means everything for us,” Rusciano said of the UNESCO recognition. “There is a lot of history behind it.”
He learned the trade from his uncles and grandfather, and remembers standing on a stool when he was 7 or 8 years old to slide his first pizza into the oven. His mother was one of 10 siblings, all of whom work in the restaurant business.
He imports many ingredients from Italy, including flour and olive oil, Calabrian peppers and San Marzano tomatoes. Just four ingredients go into the pizza dough: flour, water, yeast and sea salt.
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Making the pizza is about more than the ingredients, however. He said there is an art to mixing, kneading and shaping the dough that comes with experience.
“Our pizza is simple,” he said. “The thing that’s impossible to imitate is how you make it. There’s no recipe; you feel it. It’s imperceptible, you can’t really see it.”
The restaurant uses a custom brick pizza oven, also imported from Italy, to cook the pies at temperatures of up to 900 degrees. Everything is steeped in tradition, from the construction of the oven to the amount of time the dough rises to how the mozzarella is chopped.
Rusciano said he actually tried to escape the pizza life, working in technology for a while, but the restaurant business called him back.
“I like to be in the dining room, talking to people. That’s what I feel I was born for,” he said.
He spent time traveling and working around Europe, in France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and throughout Italy, learning different aspects of the restaurant business, before setting his sights on the United States. A family friend, Carol Gorney, lives in Iowa City and proposed they go into business together, which is how he ended up in Iowa. Gorney is Rusciano’s business partner and co-owner of the restaurant, as well as being director of clinical education at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
“All the things you see here wouldn’t be possible without the Gorney family,” Rusciano said.
Their pizzeria opened Nov. 5. Touches of Italy are everywhere in the restaurant, from small magnets his mother sent from Naples to a custom wooden wall hanging shaped like Mount Vesuvius to copper pots for drizzling olive oil.
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Along with pizzas, the menu includes Neapolitan street food, such as arancini, fried balls of risotto, ragu and cheese; frittatine, made with battered ragu, béchamel sauce and cheese; and zeppoline, fried batter filled with vegetables. There is also a mozzarella bar, salads, other antipasti and pasta dish specials.
For Rusciano, all of this is about more than serving food. He sees beauty in the alchemy of yeast plus time that turns simple flour and water into dough.
“This is life. The starter is living, it’s growing. When I’m making dough, it’s like a miracle,” he said. “I like how simple ingredients together can make delicious things.”
What: Rusicano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli
Where: 710 Pacha Parkway #5, North Liberty
When: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Details: (319) 665-2761, ruscianos.com
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; email@example.com