Meet Nicole Russell, Pizza Master of New York's Rockaways
Nicole Russell has the gift of gab. Girl can talk. And talk. Propelled by whirling hands and smacked palms, she whips through conversation with emphatic bursts, crystal-clear annunciation, and perfectly parallel phrases. She'd make a great politician. Or lawyer. Instead, she makes pizza at Last Dragon Pizza.
Born and raised in Rockaway, Queens, Nicole grew up in the idyllic, middle-class trappings of New York's outer boroughs in the last decades of the last century. The youngest child of hard-working Jamaican immigrants, Nicole was a latchkey kid, raising herself somewhat under the loving auspices of her older sister, Joan. A fixture in Nicole's life at the time was pizza, and instead of coming home to an empty house each afternoon, she would stop at a local pizzeria for a slice.
One of her clearest childhood memories was when she tagged along with her big sister to see The Last Dragon at the local movie theater. Inspired by the urban martial arts narrative, Nicole came bounding out of the theater with her motor running: "I'm the master," she boasted over and over. "I'm the master." The film also featured a Black-owned pizzeria, Daddy Green's, which was not lost on Nicole and would eventually factor into the actuation of her mastery claims.
Years later, in 2013, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways. Homebound and tired of doing her own cooking, Nicole ordered a pizza and was deeply disappointed. "I was like, 'The pizza sucks out here. Let me see if I can do better.'" An avid baker, she started making pizzas at home.
Then Joan got sick and Nicole's cooking went into overdrive as a coping mechanism. "It was so very hard, so I started cooking more," Nicole says. "I started baking more, and then I realized she likes pizza, too, so I was like, 'Let's have pizza night!'"
The gesture to distract and comfort, effective in both respects, did not quell Joan's honesty. She would tell Nicole straight up what she thought of her pizzas. "And then one day," Nicole recalls, "she said, 'This is really good.'"
Empowered by her sister's praise, Nicole focused even harder on her pizza making. One day, she brought a pie out to her block, busy with post-Sandy rehab, and gave it to a worker who declared it the best he'd ever had. He placed an order for himself and his co-workers for the next day. They paid $15 a pie. An unlikely pizzaiola was born, and Nicole's friends took notice.
"Who do you think you are?" they'd tease, "Daddy Green?"
"Maybe I am," Nicole responded. "Maybe I am."
Nicole named her venture Last Dragon Pizza, not only using the name of her favorite childhood movie but also incorporating the film's narrative into eight signature pies that represent both Nicole's ingenuity for marketing and her creativity as a cook. Sure, there are the classics like Margherita (The Laura Charles) and pepperoni (The Glo!!!), but there's also a jerk chicken pizza (Kiss My Converse!), a Tandoori Chicken Masala pie (7th Heaven), and a sweet Asian BBQ pie (Suki Yaki Hot Suki Sue).
Nicole set up a Facebook page and joined a neighborhood group. Her name started spreading through word of mouth. And then Katie Honan, a local journalist, wrote a story about Nicole for DNAInfo. Nicole was legit, but also cautious. She maintained strict rules for pickup (a location in the Rockaways, not her house!) on a limited basis of two days a week (usually Wednesdays and Fridays), 20 pies maximum per day.
A brewery opened in the area and invited Nicole to sell pies there on Fridays, which provided more exposure and access to those who were following Last Dragon Pizza online but not able or willing to adhere to the unconventional pickup practice.
By the summer of 2016, Nicole was feeling very good about her business. Her savvy social media presence had gained her more fans, and more and more people were talking about Rockaway's distinctive (and distinguished) pizza maker. So Nicole submitted a proposal to the Queens Economic Business Plan and won a $10,000 grant, which allowed her to go mobile, setting up a pizza-making apparatus on the boardwalk in an area of Rockaway Beach devoid of food vendors. "We killed down there," Nicole says.
More grants followed, along with a need to address the seasonality of her business, which thrived through summer but slowed down in winter. Nicole figured out the logistics of delivery all across America and opened Last Dragon up for nationwide shipping. The orders swept in and rivaled those of her take-out business.
Then, one order of three different pies arrived anonymously from California. The pies were delivered to Cliff Skighwalker, host of Thrillist's InstaChef, a YouTube series featuring underground chefs who are using Instagram to boost their following. Nicole was invited to be featured on the show, and her segment, shot in her home kitchen, took her business to a new level.
Next thing she knew, Nicole was palling around with and learning from NYC pizza luminaries like Nino Coniglio, famous pizzaiolo and founder of the Brooklyn Pizza Crew, and Scott Wiener, founder of Scott's Pizza Tours. She also connected with Orlando Foods, a New York-area supplier of pizza ingredients, and began attending pizza expos around the country. In 2019, she went to Naples, Italy, for the Caputo Cup, the world's most prestigious pizza-making competition. There she found not only a deeper passion for pizza making but also a profound sense of community.
"I saw firsthand the craftsmanship and love and the life," Nicole says. "I always wanted to have the integrity of all that. It was the knowledge, the people, the palate. You see it all come together there. They took me under their arms. The generosity and kindness of the whole experience in Naples changed my life."
After Naples, Nicole was asked to be an ambassador of Women In Pizza, an organization started by Orlando Foods and dedicated to empowering pizzaiolas across America. (Read our feature on Women in Pizza here.) She started doing more events and connecting more personally with her customers and the pizza community at large, reminding her of why she started making pizzas in the first place.
"Ultimately, this is a blessing," she says. "Ultimately, this saved me from pain. Pizza is beyond everything. It's just happiness and fun and love and family. Even with everything else going on in the world, pizza brings me joy."