How a Rockaways Pizza Chef Spends Her Sundays

In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Rockaways in Queens, Nicole Russell, a longtime resident of Arverne by the Sea, a ...


In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Rockaways in Queens, Nicole Russell, a longtime resident of Arverne by the Sea, a community there, began making pizzas out of her home. She did this in part to please her sister, Joan, a pizza lover who had recently learned she had cancer.

When Joan declared the pies “good,” Ms. Russell offered them as gifts to Sandy-rehab workers. This is how Last Dragon Pizza (the name was inspired by Ms. Russell’s favorite childhood movie, “The Last Dragon”) was born.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Russell was making fresh pies for locals and shipping frozen ones to 48 states. These days, the pizzas and other dishes — many named after characters and scenes from the 1985 martial arts film, set in New York City — are pickup only. Pies can be vegan or gluten-free, and many reflect Ms. Russell’s Caribbean background and global palate.

BUSINESS IN BED I get up around 8 and just write. My journal is with me in bed, and every day, first thing, I make an intention, but on Sunday, I’m doing a manifestation list, writing down, like crazy, personal and business goals. If I don’t do this, then my week is just all over the place. This is also when I review the prior week: What goals did I accomplish? What on the list actually manifested? I make note of what distracted me from my goals and try to get this figured out for the new week. After I get all this out, I go to my laptop (I keep it on a DJ stand next to my bed) and tend to social media and some business things. All this without leaving my bed.

THE BOARDWALK I like to — no, I need to — spend time with my sister Joan on Sunday mornings. We live together, in the house where we grew up, but she’s in finance, and also battling cancer, so her weeks are tough and busy. We take a walk together. It’s usually around 9:30 when we get out of the house and walk to the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach. We stay on the boardwalk because there’s no need to be on the sand in wintertime. This is where I catch up with my sister for real: see how she’s doing; how she’s feeling; how her week was and what’s coming up. I cherish this time.

JAMAICAN BREAKFAST When we get back, around 11:30, our mother has a traditional Jamaican breakfast waiting. Mama lives in Florida, but she’s been with us since Covid, and we love having her around. She makes ackee and saltfish with fried dumplings. We sit down at the table, and the three of us have breakfast together and just talk and laugh and enjoy Mama’s food and each other’s company.

MANHATTAN BOUND After breakfast, around 12:30, Joan and I hop in my car and drive to Manhattan to scout physical locations for Last Dragon Pizza. I’m collecting addresses to find brokers and landlords of vacancies. It hasn’t been easy trying to lock down a location during a lockdown, but we’re determined. I could open a store in Queens or Brooklyn, but I want to be in Manhattan because that’s just where it feels like Last Dragon Pizza belongs.

PIZZAS, PIZZAS, PIZZAS Around 3:30, it’s time for me to get serious. I spend a few hours researching dough and trying out new techniques or recipes. I’m making pizzas, making pizzas, making pizzas. Playing with time and heat. Taking notes. Practicing. After a few hours of this, I’ve got plenty of pies to give away. I’ll call some friends and say, “Hey, you want a pizza?” And then I’ll have to arrange for them to come by and pick them up or I might call over to a neighbor and just hand some over the fence if they come out to meet me. This takes a while because I usually have to bring them places, too, and my favorite place to do that is the Laru Beya Collective, a nonprofit out here that is about empowering underrepresented youth through surfing.

CROWDED KITCHEN Mama’s making our Sunday dinner. She’s a Gemini, like me, so she’s always changing like the wind. You never know. Could be something Caribbean, like oxtails or stew peas and rice, or something like lasagna or chicken cutlets or baked ziti. It’s always different, and it’s always good.

At the same time, I have prep to do for the upcoming week. This takes the rest of the night, in various stages, but I have to start by weighing out all the ingredients and prepping the dough through a process called “autolyse.” This is when water and flour are blended and left to rest. I’m in the kitchen with Mama during this, and we talk about all sorts of stuff.

SHOW TIME After dinner, at 8 sharp, Mom and Sis and I get in front of the TV. We will watch whatever’s good. Sometimes we’re following the same show, and sometimes we just channel surf. It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together. We have dessert at this time, too. I’m always hopping up during breaks to do something with the dough, but I’m right there still and back in my spot before the show picks up again. Around 10, I need to spend a half-hour or so finishing with the dough. I cut and can it and leave it to rest some more.

SOAK, THINK Last thing Sunday is all about bath time. I think of it really as the start of my week. I made myself start doing this as part of a self-care regimen. I find that sitting in the water is when I get my ideas or when I figure out what good deeds I’m going to do during the week. Stop by and see this person or call this person; send a card or something; maybe help someone with day care or an errand. It’s important to me to not forget about how important people are in my life. I can be so self-absorbed, so focused, that I forget. My intention when it comes to important people in my life is not to be catching up but to be caught up. When I’m in that hot bath, I sit and think of these things and set myself to doing them during the week. And then I need to put that dough in the fridge and go to bed.

Sunday Routine readers can follow Nicole Russell on Instagram and Twitter @LastDragonPizza.



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