Amanda Russ: Renaissance Restauranteur
Author: Becca Edwards | Photographer: Photography by Anne
When I first heard Amanda Russ sing, it wasn’t at her popular Italian restaurant Pomodori. It was at Porter and Pig, and she was performing with her brother/best friend Ben as Finkle and Einhorn. With tattoos that read like vintage lace sleeves on her olive skin, dark brown curls arranged in every which way and tapping black boots she belted, “Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night and wouldn’t you love to love her?” Everyone fell in syncopation with the rhythm, the words and, of course, her. Russ exudes not only a joie de vivre vibe, but with her food, her music, her writing and her charisma, she makes you want to fall in love with life and be a renaissance man/woman, too.
While interviewing Russ, however, it occurred to me very few people can achieve renaissance status. It not only takes talent, but it also takes having an open heart and mind, which—as you listen to her talk about her family, her restaurant, her patrons and even strangers that pass her by on the street—is at the core of her success. Russ is a renaissance woman because she wants to gobble up life one art form morsel at a time. And furthermore, her table is not set for one; it is set for anyone and everyone because, to her, kindness is an art unto itself.
“My goal in life is to keep getting better, to keep acquiring knowledge, especially in the arts, whether it is cooking, performing or writing,” Russ said. “I want to be someone who can do multiple things and find joy in doing them relatively well and in turn bring joy to other people.”
With all her talents and success, Russ admitted the thing she is most proud of is building her restaurant-family, which includes her staff, her regulars and the community. “This dream of mine we are sitting in right now was built on the backs of so many people,” she said, “from the people who mentored me like Alfred (of Alfred’s Restaurant), to the people who eat here weekly, to my staff, to my friends and family. I learned long ago that you will never make it if you try to do it all by yourself, and I am so lucky to have all these people around me.”
Amanda poses in her garden, surrounded by things she loves; Pomodori’s Tomato Mozzarella salad, Spaghetti and Meatballs
Russ also takes pleasure in the special moments Pomodori creates. “Food has the power to unite people. It’s beautiful to sit across from someone and break bread and connect. Families come in here for dinner and talk about their day, what they’ve learned in school and their relationships with teachers and friends. I am so thankful I can help bring these people together with beautiful food,” she said.
The conversation then segues to food trends Russ can sink her teeth into. “We know our locals by name. They become part of our family, which is what the culture of food is doing right now. Food is not just sustenance. It’s also community building. If one of our guests gets sick or has surgery, we send soup. If a staff member gets his citizenship, we’re making an American flag cake.”
Another new movement in dining is the performance aspect. “The culture of food and hospitality is becoming like theatre. It is an event. And we have fun being a band of misfits.” When you dine at Pomodori, you see what Russ is talking about. Most nights you will find her doing what I call “jam-cooking.” Steam rises from pots as her voice rises over the den of the kitchen singing Motown favorites from artists such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. “I am so excited we got new speakers so I can better hear the music as I sing and cook,” Russ said with a huge smile.
And that’s not the only new addition to the restaurant. “When we opened we did the opposite of what most people do. Usually a restaurant opens going right out of the gate. We decided to evolve with the space. We wanted to know our clients and their wants and needs and have the space respond to that.” Since opening in 2012, Russ recently finished her first renovation and is planning a second phase. “To celebrate our fourth year, we are getting new tables, revising the floor plan and putting a roof over the patio for year-round dining. My hope is to keep being dynamic. We want to always surprise our guests but still feel like home.”
The last food trend Russ brings up is the culinary shift toward simplicity. “Food doesn’t need to be complicated,” she explained. “I mean there is a place for that type of cuisine, but I want our food to be accessible. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we just want to be constantly making it better so everyone can have a ride.”
It’s for this reason (and the fact that her mother “would have killed [her] otherwise”) Russ chose to focus on Italian food. She attended culinary school in Calabria and honors that region’s culinary point of view with her menu. “The Calabrese style is to use everything, and I mean everything, from the whole animal, to stale bread. Generally there are five ingredients and it is kept simple so each of those ingredients can shine and their true flavors can be enjoyed.” Pomodori’s wine list also toasts to elegant unpretentiousness. “Our wine is extraordinary. Fifty percent are Italian wines, the other 50 percent are from California, Spain and other countries in Europe. Our bar manager Nate does an ‘ahhh-mazing’ job finding delicious bottles that are within our guests’ budget and don’t break the bank. We want everyone to have a nice night out without having to take out a second mortgage.”
As we’re concluding the interview, a delivery man comes in. “How you doing baby?” asked Russ, as she signed the invoice. His response summed up what anyone would say meeting Russ. “It’s always good to see you Amanda.”
Pomodori is located at 1 New Orleans Road. For more information, call (843) 686-3100 or visit gopomodori.com.