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Rusciano’s brings authentic, brick oven pizza to town

From Naples to North Liberty
Gennaro Rusciano bakes a Neapolitan pizza in his wood-fired brick oven. Rusciano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli opened its doors to North Liberty on Nov. 11. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY— Locals seeking authentic regional cuisine may have found their match as Rusciano’s brings the taste of Napoli to North Liberty.
Located at 710 Pacha Parkway, Suite 5 next to Capanna Coffee, Rusciano’s Authentic Taste of Napoli served its first slice of pizza on Nov. 11.
Its inception was a literal Iowa meets Italy, founded on decades of culinary lineage, explained Co-Owner Carol Gorney.
“I grew up in the Quad Cities, and my mom owned a bar and restaurant,” she recalled citing its three-generation legacy. “So I worked there all through my teen years, put myself through graduate school working in service and restaurants. And my kids are in service as well.”
Co-Owner, Executive Chef and namesake of the new North Liberty restaurant, Gennaro Rusciano (pronounced juh-NARR-oh ROO-shee-AH-noh), also had a winding career path which led him from his homeland of Naples in Southern Italy to the American Midwest.
“I grew up in a family of pizza chefs basically all my life. They had several restaurants in Naples,” he explained. Although his family’s history in restaurants dates back to the 1930s, Rusciano did not make it his first career choice.
“I started my secondary school to become an IT programmer,” he said. “And then I just decided to switch because the passion for pizza and family was more attractive to me than anything else.”
Rusciano soon embarked on a career in the kitchen and traveled across Europe affording him the opportunity to cut his culinary teeth in countries like France, Spain, Germany, England and Scotland, before meeting a key influence.
“A good friend of mine took me to Italy a few years back,” recalled Gorney. “And that’s when I met Gennaro.”
“She was completely in love with everything Naples could offer her at the time,” Rusciano said. “And she was interested in having a business, or eventually importing something from what she had in Naples.”
The Iowan had indeed discovered a viable import, soon carving out plans to bring Rusciano and his rich pizza heritage back to the United States.
“We just thought it would be a fun, kind of exciting, different opportunity to offer this area,” she said. “Iowa City Area is kind of a nice foodie place. They like authentic food and different kinds of opportunities, so we thought it might be a nice place to have just a small family restaurant.”
The transition came gradually. The two developed a business plan remotely as Gorney returned to Iowa and Rusciano stayed in Italy. Eventually Rusciano acquired a visa and, in 2016, he uprooted to Iowa with a passion to share the taste of Napoli with the Midwest.
Their restaurant goes to great lengths to provide an authentic experience.
“We’ve imported many things from Italy,” Gorney explained, pointing out the large wood-fire brick oven. The dome structure was custom made with hand-placed tiles by master oven maker Stefano Ferrara in Naples. Rusciano’s also serves their pizza on genuine Neapolitan plates bought overseas.
“A lot of our ingredients, our tomatoes, our flour, other things are being imported from Italy. And then we also use some local vendors,” Gorney added.
The restaurant seats 54 and features a small, fixed menu, including several white pizzas, red pizzas, salads, appetizers and kids meals, as well as Iowa beers and imported Italian wines. Offering the menu even more uniqueness is its selection of Neapolitan street food. Lastly, exclusive hand-made desserts are also provided by Tip Top Cakes in Coralville. “We offer weekly specials like a special pizza, a special appetizer. We hope to start having a weekly pasta special, one or two nights a week,” Gorney explained.
Rusciano’s also provides vegetarian, vegan and dairy-free options in both pizzas and appetizers. A gluten-free pizza dough able to withstand the high temperatures of the brick oven is in the works.
“It cooks at 900 degrees, and so it’s a very short cook time,” Gorney said. “So we’re still kind of exploring those gluten free options with some other flours to see how they hold up in the heat.”
According to Rusciano, a certified Pizzaiolo Verace from Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (A.V.P.N.) , the key to his pizza is in the dough.
This relies on its long rise and perfect hydration. The dough is made daily using “00” (double zero) flour from Italy in combination with water and salt. The dough spends twenty minutes in a special mixer imported from Italy, described by Rusciano as kind of different because it has a fork and natural rotation that envelopes air, which allows our dough be very airy and bubbly and very soft but still tasty.
The dough is allowed to rise overnight before spending another six hours, the following day, in a bowl.
“My dough has 18 hours rising, between the first process and the second process of rising. It’s a double rising basically,” he explained.
“The nice thing about it is it’s naturally growing due to the environment that’s created from the flour and water,” Rusciano added. “It’s like a chemical combination of growing bacteria inside. But it’s more natural, so it’s more healthy, and it’s more tasty.”
The pizza-making process itself is part of the experience at Rusciano’s. Dusted up to his forearms in flour, Rusciano swiftly tosses the dough into shape. A large glass jar of condensation and dough sits above the countertop where he makes the final touches before sending his creation into the glowing oven. The pizza is rotated several times during baking to evenly distribute heat from the sweltering wood fire and is ready in a matter of moments.
Rusciano makes clear his passion for the Neapolitan approach, enthusiastically describing in his thick Italian accent the chemical process of dough and the interplay between moisture and heat that results in a uniquely Neapolitan cuisine.
As opposed to the more rigid, cracker-like crust Midwesterners are familiar with,
Neapolitan pizza has a far more pliable crust, and the short baking time results in a fresh, aromatic airiness. Rusciano is also eager to demonstrate the proper way to hold a Neapolitan pizza slice, folding up the edges similar to a taco or wonton wrapper.
Aside from the children’s size, the restaurant insists on a 12-inch pizza sliced into quarters, traditionally considered the ideal portion for a single serving.
Gorney recalled weighing the options of establishing Rusciano’s in downtown Iowa City or Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, but she ultimately made the decision in favor of a family-friendly environment.
“I think North Liberty is growing so fast that it’s just a nice fit and a comfortable feel. You can attract more. Instead of people that are just traveling through and stopping by, you can build a regular clientele, and can get to know your customers.”
“My son, Taylor, is doing some of the front end managing too,” she added. “He’ll be a familiar face to the customers.”
Reception has been positive in their soft opening phase. As of this printing, Rusciano’s Facebook page maintains a perfect five-star average of over 50 reviews.
“We’re excited. We’ve hired several employees from the North Liberty area here and hope to expand,” Gorney said. “Right now, we’ll be open in the evening for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. “
She elaborated, if things go to plan, Rusciano’s will expand to Mondays and eventually lunches.