A conversation with Tony Naser of Crush Pizza
Tony Naser moved to the United States from Lebanon as a baby, living first in Queens, N.Y., and then in Lawrence, where his family ran a deli. He got his start as a dishwasher at Lawrence’s beloved Bishop’s restaurant. Today, he runs Mickey’s N.Y. Pizza in Hudson, N.H., and Crush Pizza downtown, which specializes in quick-fire personal pies. He’ll open a second branch in Quincy Center next month.
He conducted careful research before opening, touring the East Coast in a trailer and sampling pies.
“I have a motor home, and I’d go to different pizzerias in New York, New Jersey, old-world pizzerias, trying different styles,” he recalls. “I went to this tiny little place called Kesté in the West Village. It’s a tiny place. We called up and ordered a cheese pizza and some other things. My wife ran down and picked it up, because you can’t navigate an RV in those streets!”
He fell in love with the individual, crisp white cheese pizzas; thus, the idea for Crush — 11-inch pizzas cooked in a 900-degree oven for 90 seconds — was born.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Going back that far? Somewhere in the North End. I think it was the European. This is a long, long time ago, right? I was a year old when I came to this country, and I grew up in Lawrence. My parents were working in the mills. When we went out, it was a big family event. When I got older, I got into cigar smoking, and one of the first restaurants I went to on my own was Grill 23.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? God, if I could change anything, it would be the Boston rents! It makes it difficult for independent restaurants to open up in the areas we’d like to open in.
What other restaurants do you visit? Lately, I’ve been going to a lot of ramen restaurants. There’s one called Oisa Ramen, on Broad Street. It’s awesome. And recently I’ve been going to Ganko in Brookline. It’s really good.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? When I was, God, probably eight years old, my parents owned a restaurant on Essex Street [in Lawrence] called Essex Deli House. I used to help out obviously as much as I could back in those days. Right after that, I worked at Bishop’s in Lawrence as a dishwasher. I went from there to Wendy’s. Then Denny’s. I made my rounds. I was 23 years old when I opened my first restaurant on my own, and then I kept opening, and staying in the business since then. I did mostly kabobs. [My first] restaurant was called Kabobary Grill in a mall food court in Pompano Beach, Florida.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Years back, I went to a 99 restaurant locally and was eating a French onion soup. I took a spoonful of the soup and something cut my mouth really bad. It was actually a piece of porcelain that had fallen into a cup. But it looked like the cheese. I sliced my mouth up. It was very sharp. When I called the manager over, he didn’t even comp it! He gave us a free dessert. That was probably the worst.
How could Boston become a better food city? The more chef-driven restaurants, the better it is. It’s starting to move into that direction; fewer chain stores, more family businesses opening up. I think we have much better food than we did years ago. Boston was slow-moving at first, but I think now there’s a big movement, and I hope it continues.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. At my downtown restaurant, everyone is in a rush. There’s no time to sit there and talk about an experience with them, you know what I’m saying? Rushed. Health-conscious. In New Hampshire, it’s a different animal. They’re more likely to experiment with different flavors in Boston. When I make pizza in Hudson, it’s mainly pepperoni and cheese. Rarely do I get a pesto or a fancier pizza; in Boston, they’re trying everything.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Probably bowls of any kind. Salad bowls! Grain bowls! Poke bowls! Chicken bowls! Everything is a bowl nowadays.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? A fine-dining, sit-down Lebanese restaurant.
What are you reading? The only things I really read are industry magazines. Pizza Today. Pizza Quarterly.
How’s your commute? Well, I commute from New Hampshire, so it’s really horrible. All my life I have worked and lived in Massachusetts. My commute out is always worse. I tend to stay later so I can wait until the rush is over, but if I have to leave, sometimes it takes me two hours.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? That would have to be liver.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I’m always going to different restaurants. But Bishop’s is closed, and that place was awesome. Now there’s a Bishop’s in the West End. And there’s the Phoenician [in Haverhill], run by one of the guys who used to work in the kitchen.
Who was your most memorable customer? When I opened my first Crush in Nashua, where I tested the concept and knew I wanted to open in Boston, this one customer came in all the time. A big Twitter guy! He’d always come in, love it so much, and post on Twitter and tag different people. From him, the Phantom Gourmet picked us up. Every now and then, he comes into the Boston restaurant from Nashua. It was always pizza and wings. Limoncello wings are very popular. He always ordered the wings.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? A lobster roll from James Hook, definitely. It’s my favorite.