Illustration by Jess Ulman
Dec 7, 2020
She represents Queens; he bakes pies out in Brooklyn
Even the most devout New York pizza enthusiast may not have heard of Nicole Russell or Last Dragon Pizza, just yet. But once the pandemic subsides, that’s most likely going to change thanks to an autumnal assist from Lucali’s Mark Iacono.
There’s not a pizza lover in this town, or maybe even in America, worth their sauce who doesn’t know of Iacono. He’s the Brooklyn kid who opened a pizzeria in Carroll Gardens just to save a beloved candy shop from gentrification. After renovation over roughly two and a half years, Iacono opened his doors with no fanfare in 2006—and was famous within about two-and-a-half weeks. First came the locals, soon followed by the press; then Jay Z and Beyoncé started popping by on a regular basis, and it was on from there. Since said opening, people have been lining up outside the shop for hours ahead of the first seating to reserve a coveted table in the expertly restored room marked by candle light, antique finishes, and the warm, heady aroma of a brick oven firing calzone and pizzas.
At a glance, you’d never know that Iacono is the proprietor of the joint declared by GQ magazine in 2009 to make the second best pie in America. He seems to exist in grey, brusque good looks and silent implications, still the guy from the hardscrabble environs of late 20th century, pre-gentrified Brooklyn—the guy who survived a knife fight in 2011 that made the cover of New York papers. But he’s also widely regarded as indifferent if not oblivious to his fame, a guy who still looks out for everyday people.
And that’s what he did with fledgling pizzaiola, Nicole Russell, who contacted Iacono and asked if she could bring her mother by Lucali for a birthday dinner in the days before the pandemic.
“I didn’t really know Nicole or her story,” Iacono explains. “I had heard she made a fantastic pie, but I thought she had her own pizzeria.”
Russell has never run a pizzeria—though that seems about to change. She operates Last Dragon Pizza entirely out of her Rockaway home since launching in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where she began making her unique pies—inspired by her favorite childhood movie, “The Last Dragon,” as well as her Caribbean heritage and global palate—for her family, locals and the workers rehabbing her hurricane-hammered neighborhood. Soon she was running a thriving take-out business, with seasonal pop-ups around the Rockaways, and shipping frozen pizzas across the country. Still, she had never made a pie in restaurant-realtime, much less the full house of a legendary location. But Iacono insisted.
“I told her when she was here for dinner, ‘You just gotta take a shot,” Iacono says. “And she was hesitating at first, and I said, ‘You’re doing this. Just take my place one night.’ And she was like ‘What? Alright. You don’t have to ask me twice.’”
Russell is a sunshine-to-the-square inch girl with a cherubic smile. And despite that initial hesitation at Iacono’s invitation, she was all in.
“I mean, come on,” says Russell. “Getting an offer from Mark Iacono to take over his Tuesday night—his closed night—was like getting drafted into the major leagues for me. Being able to offer my pizzas at Lucali is just crazy! He’s known to be a purist. Having me there alone shatters that myth, and I was just honored that he offered it to me.”
Russell might not be a purist when it comes to making pizza. Her signature pies include “Kiss Mi Converse!” (spicy jerk chicken, yellow peppers, scallions, white onions, black olives) and “Sukiyaki Hot Suki Sue” (sweet Asian BBQ chicken, yellow and red peppers, mushrooms, red onions, scallions) among others. She practiced her dough at home for months and practiced making pizzas in Iacono’s oven for a few months after that.
“I had to create a pizza that was worthy of being offered at the legendary Lucali,” says Russell.
It all came to fruition on one mid-October evening, a perfect night for a pizza chef’s official coming out. It was crisp, and the turning leaves on Henry Street quivered above the elegant dining station Iacono had built adjacent to his antique storefront. All tables were booked for three seatings, and the guests cloaked in streetlight ranged from family to friends, journalists and pizza enthusiasts, figures from the food world and well known pizzioli from throughout the Tri-State area. The most famous of them, Iacono, appeared during the second seating and kept a modest presence within the interior confines where Russell, in high spirits and decked out in swank dress, served as hostess to a decidedly Brooklyn crowd of diverse ages and background.
“The pizza community has always been supportive of me,” Iacono explains. “You just have to do this. How could you not? Especially with a talent like Nicole’s.”
Soon, diners might have the opportunity to support her as well, once dining out becomes a thing again: Inspired in part by her experience at Lucali, Russell is actively seeking a city storefront of her own to lure pizza lovers of New York into the lair of the Last Dragon.
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