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Eating Out: Secret ingredients

Tempe's most popular restaurant expands further

 by Kristi Eaton  published on Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tempe's popular pizza bistro, Oregano's, has expanded to Mesa.  The new location is near Southern Avenue and Dobson Road.
/issues/arts/693133
Danielle Peterson / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Tempe's popular pizza bistro, Oregano's, has expanded to Mesa. The new location is near Southern Avenue and Dobson Road.
 

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It's a warm Saturday evening and Oregano's Pizza Bistro on University Drive is packed.

Patient customers fill the patio to capacity as they wait for a table. Most of them have been waiting for an hour or more.

But they don't mind. The wait for a table at Oregano's is as famous as its signature dessert, the Pizza Cookie, better known as the Pizookie. Waiting a long time to get a seat at Oregano's -- whether it's a Saturday or a Tuesday -- is a given.

Now, the family-owned restaurant, which has locations in Tucson, Flagstaff, Scottsdale and Phoenix, is expanding even further to Mesa. Owner Mark Russell says he hopes the new store will decrease the waiting lines at the Tempe store and other locations in the Valley.

"[The Tempe restaurant] is like a Volkswagen," he says. "It's going 80 miles per hour and we realized we needed to do something about it to take the pressure off. So we decided to open a location in Mesa."

The first Oregano's opened in old town Scottsdale in November 1993. Three months later, the lines started getting long.

"I remember that was a huge deal," Russell says.

Two years after the original, Russell says he opened the Tempe location, and business has been booming since. Despite his success throughout the state, Russell says he does not have plans to open locations outside of the state or to franchise.

"Once a week, I get offers for franchises," he says. "But then it's not authentic."

Authentic is what Russell has aimed for in his restaurants from the very beginning. After both his parents passed away, Russell wanted to do something that would help keep his parents' legacy alive. That's when he got the idea to open an Italian restaurant that would remind him of his childhood days growing up in Chicago.

"All the music and recipes are from my parents," he says. "It's all driven from them."

Russell now has around 400 employees working for him. He makes an effort to make sure that each one enjoys their job and has the personality to work in a hectic environment.

"Our motto is 'Food and attitude is everything,' " he says.

Jessica Slater, who is a server at Oregano's, used to be a flight attendant based in Pittsburgh. She says her server job there is one of the best she's ever had.

"It's not like work," she says. "Everyone is family and everyone has fun. Plus, the money is good."

Russell used to frequent a restaurant in Pittsburgh where Slater worked and now they are almost like family. As he recalls how one of his cooks was able to buy a house recently, it becomes obvious that Russell takes great pride in his employees.

Russell not only takes pride in his employees, but his customers as well.

"The awards that we receive that are voted on by the customers mean the most to us," he says. "But we try not to focus on the awards. We just try to do our best and excel."

Doing their best also means not comparing themselves to other restaurants. One place that many restaurants have tried to take on Oregano's is in the dessert department. Several restaurants, including Pizzeria Uno on Mill Avenue, have tried to imitate the Pizookie, but none have been able to create the same great taste.

The delicious dessert is made up of slightly baked cookie dough placed in a 6-inch pizza pan and topped with ice cream.

"A lot of companies make it, but we have a secret ingredient," Russell says.

Rosadell Sanchez, an employee at nearby Mesa Community College, not only comes in for the food, but she also says the prices are very fair.

Sanchez says she visits Oregano's about twice a week and on average waits 30 minutes to be seated,

"It's worth it," she says. "Because the food is so good."

Reach the reporter at kristi.eaton@asu.edu.



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