Nicole Russell of Last Dragon Pizza in Rockaway, NY

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The most unique pizzeria in NYC just might be Last Dragon Pizza. It’s not a sit-down restaurant, but a pickup only location in the Rockaways. Word of mouth handles all their marketing and all the pizza is made by one person: Nicole Russell. 

How and why did you start Last Dragon Pizza?
I started making pizza for fun (or as I jokingly say, greed) in 2013. I’ve always been a pretty good baker. My family would come to me to buy fresh baked bread all the time. My sister and I love pizza. I started my obsession with pizza slices in high school. I would go to my favorite pizzeria, Gino’s Pizza in Far Rockaway, everyday after school. Most of the old pizzerias I grew up on changed ownership and the pizza quality suffered. I started experimenting with dough for fun. In 2012, my home was affected by Hurricane Sandy and my sister was diagnosed with cancer. Making pizza was my only relief – the only thing that was bringing me joy during a very trying period in my life. One day I offered my pizza to construction workers and to my surprise they loved it. They came back the next day and that’s how I started selling pizza.

Where did you learn how to make pizza?
I learned how to make pizza by watching various videos on YouTube.  My dough recipe and process for making homemade pizza at 500-600 degrees came with a lot of trial and error. I experimented with a lot with various flours from 00 to basic bread flours until I found a formula that made me happy. I worked hard to a pizza product that I actually enjoyed – that I felt was up-to-par with the pizzerias I loved. My taste influences are a combination of NY street slices, my favorite, Patsy’s, and Neopolitan pizza from the now defunct Pulino’s NYC.

You have a unique business model, with no real storefront or food truck. Can you explain how you operate and how the system works?
Last Dragon Pizza is an online word-of-mouth pizza service in the Rockaways, specializing in ethnic, globally-inspired toppings; combining pizza with all the great cuisine melting pot that is NYC: Great subs like philly cheesesteaks, West Indian food, Indian Food, etc. We offer Tandoori, Jerk Chicken, Asian BBQ, Philly Cheesesteak, to name a few. Referrals order online on our website and the Rockaway pickup location is given upon order completion.

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Why did you decide to name your pizza business after a 1985 movie about martial arts?
As afore mentioned, my sister is a HUGE reason why I actually started making pizza.  It was to create a more communal relationship in our home as she was going through her chemotherapy. Making and eating pizza became a distraction to not think about all that was going on in both of our lives. Eight years my senior, My sister Joan took me to see the movie The Last Dragon as a young girl right here in Rockaway at a movie theater that is now gone.  

The Rockaway community is comprised of a lot of 2nd, 3rd, and/or 4th generation home owners; nostalgic for the good ol’ days of our beloved beach community. Rockaway used to be a recreational playground with Playland amusement park, 80’s arcades, double feature movie theaters, etc. My sister, her friends and I walked 3 miles to the movie theater to see The Last Dragon at Surfside Cinemas when it came out and to date it is our favorite movie!  And, there’s a line in the movie where Bruce Leroy’s father, the owner of a mom and pop pizzeria named Daddy Green’s Pizza, says to his son, Richie, people used to think I was crazy – a black man opening a pizza shop.“

True fans of the movie remember Daddy Green’s pizza vividly. So my friends would jokingly refer to me as Daddy Green’s Pizza, which spawned the notion of naming it after the movie and dedicating pizza pies to various scenes of the movie.

Also, the protagonist in the movie is a martial artist on a quest to find the ‘higher level’ and so am I! I am on a quest to mastering the art of pizza making, too.  

So you see it’s a combination of Rockaway nostalgia, an ode to fun times shared growing up with my sister and paying homage to the greatest movie of all times! 🙂 The pizzas are names after characters and memorable scenes in the movie:

The GLO – Plain Cheese
The Laura Charles – Margherita
Daddy Greens – Veggie/Vegan Pizza
Kiss Mi’ Converse – Jerk Chicken
7Th Heaven – Tandoori Chicken
SukiYaki Hot Suki Sue – Asian BBQ
Sho’ Nuff! – Philly Chesse Steak
Ninja Phu-Leez – Custom A La Carte
Bruce Leroy – Plain Cheese Sicilian

The Rockaway community whole-hearted embraced Last Dragon Pizza from day one and I think it was because of the timing. As a community we were all healing from Hurricane Sandy and the mystery of a non disclosed location on the peninsula was an adventure and discovery for most. Now, all of my customers are like family to me. And now, thousands customers later, I pretty much every single person who have picked up me.

Why did you end up making pizza instead of any other dish?
I love pizza and  I was obsessed with making the best pizza I could imagine.  

What’s your favorite thing about making pizza?
I love making the dough. Kneading dough by hand is truly a meditative process.  It’s soothing to me.

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What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned since you started Last Dragon Pizza?
I learned so much over the last 4 years.  I’ve learned that the foodie culture is no joke!  Folks will travel near and far for good food, especially good pizza!  Last Dragon Pizza has become a NYC vacation bucket list for many; someone once took a roundtrip Uber from Manhattan to Far Rockaway (30 miles) to pick up pizza from us. I currently ship frozen pizza to nationwide to folks from Queens Village, Staten Island, the Bronx  for those that don’t wanna make the trek to Far Rockaway), to San Francisco, DC, Wyoming and Texas.

I’ve learned that overall, people are good natured. The search for good pizza is one commonality we all share and brings us closer as a community. #PizzaNation! 🙂

Finally, the greatest lesson I’ve learned business wise is to stay consistent. Theres a lot of hard work and dedication behind pizza making in particular. It’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve been able to leap over certain the barriers to entry in the pizza industry because I was a multi-media designer before hand, specializing in web/graphic design development and social media marketing. It’s not easy, managing everything from inventory, social media, retention, sales, etc. AND making a great pizza product on top of that. But,  it’s worth it because I’m doing what I love.

What’s next for Last Dragon Pizza?
Short term, we are focused on food service and retail, From inception, I always envision Last Dragon Pizza as a frozen product available world-wide to anyone who wants to try it.  So, retail is the end goal. Opening a brick and mortar was never a  thought. However, as the business continues to grow, one day I hope we can open a flag-ship location somewhere. Where? Not sure.

Visit the Last Dragon Pizza website for more info!

*This post is part of a month-long series featuring women in the pizza industry in honor of Women’s History Month!

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