Vincenza and Margherita Carrieri-Russo grew up in a third-generation pizza family, but the multitalented sisters could have pursued any career, from dancing, acting and modeling to master sommelier or running a nonprofit. Amazingly, they chose all of the above—without ever leaving the restaurant business. How they find time to run V&M Bistro in Wilmington, Delaware, is anyone’s guess, but judging by the statewide accolades and awards they’ve received since opening the Italian-American restaurant in 2014, this is one sister act that can outperform the men on any culinary stage.
Women-owned restaurants certainly aren’t easy to find—sister-owned pizzerias are rarer still. But behind much of Vincenza and Margherita’s success is a man, and they’re the first to say so. In fact, they’d rather talk about their dad, longtime pizzaiolo Vincenzo Carrieri-Russo Sr., than themselves. “Our father is our mentor, our confidante,” Vincenza says. “He has shown us the way and guided us through it all because of his knowledge of the business…He didn’t teach us how to be pizza girls. He taught us how to be women in business, how to be business owners and be good at it and to be efficient.”
Still, Vincenza and Margherita run the show now, and they’re succeeding at a level many restaurateurs—and small business owners in general—can only dream of.
“You could describe V&M as a trendy yet relaxed dining experience with custom cocktails and New York-style atmosphere. The chic ambience is equal to any New York or Los Angeles hotspot.”
— Vincenza Carrieri-Russo, V&M Bistro
A Dynamic Team
Pizza fans across the East Coast have known the Carrieri-Russo name for more than half a century. Italo Carrieri-Russo, grandfather to Vincenza and Margherita, opened his first pizzeria in Long Island in 1961. His wife, Enza, soon joined him in the business, and Vincenzo Sr. and his two brothers jumped on board a couple of years later. “Around 1974, they took the business to the next level,” Vincenza recalls. “They started opening pizzeria after pizzeria in malls around Philadelphia and the tristate area. That’s where it all began.”
Vincenza, Margherita and their brothers, Italo and Vincenzo Jr., practically grew up in the family’s best-known store, Zino Pizza, which thrived for more than 30 years in Newark, Delaware. “Dad was there every single day, all day long,” Vincenza says. “To see him, we had to visit him at the pizzeria. As soon as we were of age, we started working there.”
Along with their mother, Giovanna, the Carrieri-Russo patriarch emphasized a strong work ethic, but he valued book smarts, too. “He felt getting your education and college degree was very, very important, and along the way we learned every part of the pizza business while we were going to school,” Vincenza says.
Both sisters earned their degrees from the University of Delaware—Margherita in organizational and community leadership and Vincenza in English with a concentration in literary studies. Meanwhile, Vincenza also made her mark in the pageant world as Miss Delaware USA in 2008 and Elite Miss Earth United States in 2015, among other titles. As if that didn’t keep her busy enough, in 2002 she co-founded Success Won’t Wait, a nonprofit focused on literacy, and became the first Delawarean to win the National Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for community service in 2005.
Vincenza’s pageant success opened other doors, from runway, print and catalog modeling to acting in commercials for brands like Mercedes Benz and Fiat. But she says nothing beats collaborating with her sister, Margherita, so teaming up to open V&M Bistro five years ago was pretty much inevitable. “Even before V&M existed or was a thought, we always worked well together, whether it was school or community service projects, pageants or events,” Vincenza says. “We know how to play off our strengths and weaknesses and balance each other out. We’re a dynamic team, the perfect pair, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“We just hosted a wedding rehearsal dinner with a beach theme. [The client] gave me the colors they wanted, and I customized table cards and a menu to fit the theme, with all these special little touches, and the bride and groom had no idea it was coming.”
— Margherita Carrieri-Russo
A Family Affair
V&M Bistro was a hit from the start and began racking up “best of” awards as early as 2015, when the editors of Delaware Today named it the best Italian restaurant in Upstate Delaware. The eatery has continued to collect honors from Delaware Today, including Best Cocktail Selection in 2016, Best Pasta in 2017 and Best Contemporary Italian Cuisine in 2018. It has also won numerous Diner’s Choice Awards from OpenTable.
The sisters are quick to spread around the credit for their restaurant’s success. Although owned by Vincenza and Margherita, V&M Bistro is entirely a Carrieri-Russo enterprise, with dad Vincenzo running the kitchen as executive chef and the brothers filling in as needed—Vincenzo Jr. in the kitchen and Italo in the front of the house. “Our mother, Giovanna, is the glue that keeps us all together,” Vincenza says. “It’s like a family affair. We are the public faces of V&M, but we always say it takes a village.”
V&M is a dinner-only restaurant most of the year, although it also opens for lunch during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season. “We wanted to focus on where we thrive, which is dinner,” Vincenza says. In addition to their famous 10” pizzettes (one size only), all pastas and breads for the menu are made fresh in-house daily. “It’s very labor-intensive, but that’s another thing that sets us apart from everyone else,” Vincenza adds. “This is something our father always references—cooking like Grandma. I think of Nonna cooking in the kitchen. Those are the best dinners and the best experiences.”
The Cocktail Queen
And V&M is all about creating a dining experience rather than just serving a meal and quickly turning tables. Along with its gourmet dishes, like the lasagna-style Timballo, the Gnocchi Bolognese and the Nodino di Maiale, the bistro has earned statewide fame for its stunningly appointed and beautifully lit bar, wine wall and drink menu. While Vincenza focuses largely on front-of-the-house operations and marketing, Margherita reigns as V&M’s cocktail queen and presides over its popular happy hours and Wine Flight Wednesdays. “We have signature cocktails that change throughout the year,” Margherita says. “I have to be prepared for each new season and stay on top of what’s new and hot.”
Pairing your pizzette or entrée with the right wine is essential to the V&M experience, and Margherita is there to help. “The best choice is not always an Italian wine,” Margherita points out. “It’s also beautiful to have a French wine or an Argentinian or South African wine.” Meanwhile, her team of trained mixologists pour signature drinks like the Limoncello Ice Martini, featuring housemade limoncello, two scoops of housemade lemon ice and a lemon wheel garnish. And that’s just one of the many options that makes martini connoisseurs covet a seat at the V&M bar; customers can also chill out with a Cherry-cello Ice Martini, a Caramel Apple Martini or, just in time for fall weather, a Pumpkin Spice Martini.
“Delaware is saturated with pizzerias, so it was very important that we evolve with the changing times to set ourselves apart from everyone else,” Vincenza says. “It was important to introduce the bar and the signature cocktails…and to provide our customers with a different dining experience. You could describe V&M as a trendy yet relaxed dining experience with custom cocktails and New York-style atmosphere. The chic ambience is equal to any New York or Los Angeles hotspot.”
Tailoring the Guest Experience
It’s also the kind of date-night hotspot where couples fall in love, so it frequently plays host to wedding rehearsal dinners and other catered events. Margherita, an accomplished baker, even designs signature cakes and helps lovebirds plan their special nights down to the most exacting details. “Right now, I’m working with a young man who’s celebrating his one-year anniversary with his girlfriend,” she says. “He made the reservation two months ago because he wanted to make sure everything was perfect. I’m working on a customized label for a bottle of wine for them, flowers on the table, and a special menu just for them. It’s all being customized just for his girlfriend—without letting her know so that it’s a beautiful surprise. I love these moments and delivering that one-of-a-kind dinner or luncheon experience.”
“We just hosted a wedding rehearsal dinner with a beach theme,” Margherita adds. “[The client] gave me the colors they wanted, and I customized table cards and a menu to fit the theme, with all these special little touches, and the bride and groom had no idea it was coming. I love dealing with these details—that’s the last thing [the customer] should have to worry about. You are entrusting me with that, and I will gladly do it for you.”
In fact, a major advantage of offering 10” pizzettes is that they can be easily customized for the individual guest, Vincenza observes. “We created a vegan pizza just for one customer—all veggies, no cheese—and it was out of this world. This was a regular who didn’t even realize we could do that for them. Out of all the daily operations of this restaurant, changing the toppings on a pizza is probably the easiest thing we do, and to customize a pizza for an individual makes their dining experience so much better.”
That kind of personalized service is a hallmark feature of V&M Bistro, which is why Vincenza—who handles most of the staff recruitment and training responsibilities—looks for a specific type of employee. “We always hire based on personality and attitude, not experience,” she says. “You can teach someone how to make pizza, but you can’t teach personality, attitude and work ethic. If they have a great resume and pizza knowledge, that’s good, but how will this person work in a team setting?”
“It’s not easy being a female leader, especially in this male-dominated industry. We’ve gotta fight. We’ve gotta work a lot harder. But we’re breaking down those barriers, and we’re doing it together.”
— Vincenza Carrieri-Russo
Breaking Down Barriers
Of course, it’s not easy to gauge a potential employee’s work ethic, but Vincenza has figured that out, too. “Whenever I interview for a new hire, I always ask them if they volunteer,” she says. As lifelong high-performers, Vincenza and Margherita have been giving back to their community since they were youngsters. Vincenza, who struggled with reading comprehension as a child, was 18 when she co-founded Success Won’t Wait, which encourages reading and collects and distributes books for children who otherwise might not have access to them. It’s another project that involves the entire Carrieri-Russo clan plus a host of volunteers. They organize used book drives throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and manage a network of book-drop locations at businesses, retailers, churches, schools and civic associations. Baskets of donated books are then redistributed to locations where children frequently have to sit and bide their time, such as waiting rooms and lobbies. The nonprofit has also created small independent libraries at a facility for pregnant teens, a learning center for kids with special needs, and a children’s hospice.
Additionally, V&M Bistro raises funds for the Lupus Foundation of America (Vincenza has lupus) and holds an annual Christmas event that honors the city’s first responders. “Around the holidays, the fire department makes a guest appearance in a fire truck decorated with lights and brings Santa to the restaurant,” Vincenza says. “They hand out safety materials and take pictures with guests. The customers love it.”
And Vincenza and Margherita love their customers. They’ve always got stories to tell about their guests. “I truly love meeting them,” Margherita says. “I recently had a conversation about a customer’s niece who just got her dream job. I remember when she turned 21 at our bar, and now she’s in L.A., learning all these new things. Our patrons and their families become a part of our family, and I truly enjoy learning all about them.”
But ask Vincenza and Margherita what they love most about their jobs, and they point to each other. “What I love most is that I get to work with my sister—as well as my father and my whole family—every day,” Vincenza says. “My sister is the best business partner I could ever have. It’s so rewarding. We click when we work together.”
“I would have to say ditto because there’s nothing I can add to that,” Margherita says, with a laugh.
“It’s not easy being a female leader, especially in this male-dominated industry,” Vincenza continues. “We’ve gotta fight. We’ve gotta work a lot harder. But we’re breaking down those barriers, and we’re doing it together. And we’re both very proud of that.”
Marketing the V&M Experience
Vincenza and Margherita Carrieri-Russo, owners of V&M Bistro in Wilmington, Delaware, grew up in pizza kitchens and know all the culinary ins and outs. But they also shine as restaurant and event marketers. Here are some of their top strategies for building the V&M brand:
Wine Flight Wednesdays—Guests can discover new wines and enjoy half-priced pizzettes every Wednesday night. “We provide information on cards about each wine, the region, vintage, type of grapes and pairing suggestions,” Margherita says. “It gives me the opportunity to select wines from the menu that we don’t serve by the glass. And it gives customers a chance to try something they’ve never had before, beyond the standard Chianti, Pinot Grigio or Pinot Noir.”
Create a customer newsletter—“Everybody has a device in their hand now, whether it’s a smartphone, an iPad or a laptop,” Vincenza says. “It’s very important to connect with them through email and keep them up to date on our seasonal cocktails, new dishes, specials and upcoming events.”
Stay active on social media—Vincenza works closely with her social media manager and emphasizes consistency and authenticity. She personally shoots most photos of the bistro’s dishes and avoids excessive editing and manipulation of the images. “A balance between realistic and professional images is important,” she says. “It’s OK if the photo has a little glare in it because it’s authentic and real.” Restaurateurs who work with social media managers should keep one thing in mind, she adds. “I’m the expert in the restaurant industry, not my social media manager.”
Remember the hashtags—Before V&M opened, Vincenza claimed the #VMBistro hashtag. “It’s on the menu, on every post, every picture, every T-shirt, every pen,” she says. “It’s easy to remember a hashtag. Click that hashtag, and you’ll see thousands of posts from the past five years—not just by us but by our patrons, even people from out of town. It’s really important to establish that from the beginning.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.