What started as a vision for a deli and café – that would hopefully serve as a retirement plan – quickly turned into much more for Ed Russo, owner of Lock 50 Restaurant and Wine Bar and now Russo’s Italian Restaurant.
Mr. Russo got his start in the industry just four years ago when he opened Lock 50 – where he acted as general manager. Prior to that he owned Labex of MA, an industry-grade laboratory equipment firm. However, the new American, small plate restaurant on Water Street did so well, Mr. Russo was hooked. Russo’s followed in June 2019.
For the Worcester native, born and raised on Grafton Hill, the choice to open in the city – both restaurants are located on Water Street, tucked into the Canal District – was easy. Though he now resides in Leicester, Mr. Russo joked he “really only sleeps” there.
As far as success, the proof is in the pudding – or, in this case, meatballs.
Utilizing his grandmother’s recipe, Mr. Russo tells tales of customers driving from afar just for the meatballs. “It’s a huge compliment,” he said.
In fact, many of the dishes on the restaurants’ menus are family recipes. And it is, after all, a family business. With his nephew, Timothy Russo, serving as executive chef; his son, Sean, and his daughters helping out as well; Mr. Russo says, “when you walk in, you know.”
Between the two venues, Mr. Russo employs roughly 40 people.
Despite their similarity, both restaurants have distinct styles. Russo’s is “straight-up ItalianAmerican” cuisine, as Mr. Russo puts it, with a priority on quality and “a price point that is approachable to everyone.” Lock 50, on the other hand, he describes as “contemporary American food” with a “more sophisticated” menu. Potato gnocchi is a customer favorite as well as their chef’s tasting menu and Mr. Russo envisions a separate dining room set aside for tastings in Lock 50.
One unifying factor of both brands is the quality of the dishes.
“Everything’s homemade. The bread, pasta, pastrami,” said Mr. Russo, “even the ketchup and mustard are homemade.”
Yet, for Mr. Russo, “it’s not just our creative menu that sets us apart – it’s the creativity of the restaurant [concept],” he said, referencing the igloos dotting the Lock 50 patio during the winter months. These pop-up patio structures are “heated even in the middle of a snowstorm,” allowing customers to enjoy the outdoor space while protected from cold and wind.
Whether it’s the igloos, tiki nights, live music, special tastings, or other events, “we’re constantly doing different things,” he said.
Calling Mr. Russo a “major contributor to the city and to local tourism efforts,” Stephanie Ramey, executive director of Discover Central Massachusetts, said “he has a great vision and isn’t afraid to implement new tactics that spark curiosity and drive traffic to Worcester.”
Ms. Ramey added “bringing the igloos to Lock 50 was brilliant. People are craving new and unique experiences – enjoying a high-end dinner in this type of setting is truly amazing.”
According to Mr. Russo, the carefully crafted wine list makes dining at either Lock 50 or Russo’s a unique experience. The list, which he called “unique, balanced, and curated,” features representation from around the world including bottles from Italy, Lebanon, and Greece.
“We’re not just a California heavy selection … we look for the best,” he said.
And his commitment to wine doesn’t stop with the two restaurants. Mr. Russo is a founding partner of the Worcester Wine Festival which recently concluded its third year in September.
A weekend-long festival, the event is the result of a collaboration between Mr. Russo and MassFoodies and consists of a VIP dinner at Lock 50 on Friday night and a Grand Tasting held at Union Station on Saturday afternoon.
Dubbing it his “brain child,” Mr. Russo said the idea was inspired three years ago by Lock 50’s dedication to wine.
Since its inception, the festival has continued to grow and has “gotten bigger and better every year,” according to Mr. Russo. This year’s festival drew more than 1,500 people over the duration of the September weekend and featured 60 different vendors.
“Ed is the type of person who can identify a void and then immediately act to fill it – which is how the Worcester Wine Festival came to be. Anyone can see this event is a labor of love for him and all those involved,” said Ms. Ramey.
Of his involvement with the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Russo noted hosting a Business After Hours event at Lock 50 in 2017, receiving the Chamber’s Silver Hammer award for renovations to the Lock 50 building, sponsoring Chamber golf tournaments, and serving as a Game Changers hospitality panelist in 2016 among other participation. For him, the Chamber has been “great exposure.”
When asked with which endeavor he enjoys spending his time the most, Mr. Russo said: “I’m extremely proud of the quality of food and service we provide. … When people walk out the door and tell me how great everything is, it’s a very proud moment for me.”
Not too long ago, Mr. Russo “never would have considered [himself] a player in the [hospitality] scene.”
“However,” he revealed, “I still have a few ideas,” teasing his aspirations to eventually have at least one more restaurant in the Canal District. “I’m a strong believer that when you put several restaurants together it benefits everyone. It doesn’t make it competitive. … We all help one another.”
Dominique Goyette-Connerty was a marketing and communications associate for the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is now a freelance correspondent. To read the entirety of the November 2019 edition of the Chamber Exchange, visit the newspaper archive.