BOUND BROOK — On a typical Sunday the magic happens in the kitchen at Girasole, arguably the best Italian restaurant in Somerset County.
Last Sunday, it took place in the back office.
That’s where the TV was tuned into ESPN and staff members darted in and out to check the scores of a big game.
No, it was not Serie A or some other soccer match. Girasole is known for its stuffed pork chop, rigatoni Bolognese and love of lacrosse.
“After 26 years I have a very loyal staff, and they are as big of fans of the sport as I am,” owner Rob Russo said.
With good reason. Russo’s son, Bobby Russo, is a defensive stalwart on the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team. On Sunday he helped the Scarlet Knights rout Harvard in their NCAA Tournament opener. This Saturday they face Penn in the quarterfinals (noon at Hofstra, ESPNU). Given how the bracket is playing out, the winner will be favored to reach the national championship game.
“I never thought in a million years my son would be not only a player, but a difference-maker,” Rob Russo said.
It’s a long way from the southern Italian province of Avellino, where the Russo family lost everything in a devastating earthquake. Bobby’s journey — he graduated with a degree in marketing and a 3.75 grade-point average, earning recognition as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar — is an embodiment of the American dream.
'I never want this life for my son'
The Irpinia earthquake of 1980 struck Avellino with a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale. It left 250,000 people homeless.
Among them was Rob Russo, then 12, whose father Alfonso owned a restaurant in town.
“Our house was severely damaged,” he said. “We used the restaurant to house a lot of people who lost their homes.”
Seeking a new start, the Russo family moved across the ocean to be near relatives in Bridgewater. Alfonso found work as a cook and Rob bussed tables, eventually opening his own restaurant in Bound Brook. If you live along the Route 22 corridor you’ve probably heard of Girasole, which opened in 1996. The tiramisu is literally homemade; Rob’s mother, affectionately known as Nonna, makes it at her home and brings it in.
It’s a family business, but Rob drew the line at getting his three kids in involved.
“My father never wanted this life for me, just like I never want this life for my son,” Rob Russo said. “I chose not to go to college, but my son didn’t have that choice. The only time my son ever worked here was bring-your-child-to-work day. I never wanted him to work in the restaurant out of fear he would fall in love with it.”
So Bobby focused on school and the Russo family’s newfound passion: lacrosse. Rob’s younger brother Aldo had picked up the sport like many in Bridgewater, playing in high school for legendary coach Chuck Apel. Bobby followed suit.
The honor of No. 8
As a senior at Bridgewater-Raritan, Bobby was awarded the program’s highest honor. He was given uniform No. 8.
That’s the number once worn by Michael Bruce, who starred for Apel at the old Bridgewater East. On his way to the SATs as a senior in 1988, Bruce was in a car accident and wound up paralyzed. He died in 2000.
“I was lucky enough to get that number my senior year,” Bobby said.
After he joined the long line of Bridgewater grads to play at Rutgers, Bobby had to change numbers. Eight was taken. His mother Anna hatched an idea.
“If you can’t have just the 8, it’s better to have two 8s,” she said. “You’re still representing Bridgewater and Mike Bruce and what he stands for.”
So Bobby, a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, wears No. 88. He also displays Bruce’s initials on one side of his helmet. On the other are the letters “JE,” for James Emmer. That’s Anna’s father, who died last year.
“He would have loved this,” Anna said of Rutgers’ success. “My mother still comes to games.”
The Russos brought a contingent of 22 people to the Harvard game, including Rob, who left his trusted staff in charge of pumping out the rigatoni. Rutgers drew a crowd of 5,212, the largest in the tournament thus far.
“The coolest atmosphere I’ve played ever in,” Bobby said. “To have that much support was really awesome.”
On the brink of history
Rutgers University is a big place, but at times it’s a small world. Anna Russo is a 1991 grad.
“She was a waitress at Stuff Yer Face,” Bobby said of New Brunswick’s iconic Stromboli palace. “Her picture is up on the wall.”
As Bobby came up through the lacrosse ranks, just about all of his coaches had played for the Scarlet Knights, from Apel to his assistants to the guys running the youth and club teams. He’s not the only Bridgewater-Raritan alum on the squad; junior faceoff specialist Jonathan Dugenio was a Panther, too. None of their predecessors in the pipeline ever reached the Final Four.
“Knowing how proud it would make all those guys would make it even more special,” Bobby said.
Penn stands in the way. The Quakers are good, but the only two teams that have beaten Rutgers this year, Maryland and Princeton, are on the other side of the bracket. Second-seeded Georgetown is out, stunned by Delaware. Opportunity is banging on the door.
It banged last May, too, when Rutgers reached the quarterfinals and dropped an overtime heartbreaker to top-seeded North Carolina.
“We were a couple of minutes away from the Final Four,” Bobby said. “It was definitely said from the contingent of guys who were on the fence about coming back (for a fifth year) — I want to get here again. That’s been our motivation all year, to get back to this point and further.”
If they go all the way, a special reward awaits — all the stuffed pork chops, rigatoni Bolognese and Nonna’s tiramisu they can eat.
“If we win the national championship, I would be open to closing (Girasole) down and having everybody here,” Rob Russo said. “It would be a great honor.”
SIZING UP RUTGERS vs. PENN
Both sixth-seeded Rutgers (14-3) and third-seeded Penn (11-4) are rolling into the quarterfinals.
The Scarlet Knights, coming off their 19-9 first-round win over Harvard, have won four of their last five games while the Quakers have won seven in a row. Penn beat Richmond, 11-10, in overtime to advance to the quarterfinals.
Penn, which won the Ivy League Tournament, has one of the best players in the country in senior midfielder Sam Handley, the Ivy League Player of the Year and Tewaaraton Award Finalist. Handley has registered 36 goals and 34 assists this season and has scored three goals in each of Penn’s last three contests.
Still, Rutgers boasts experience and confidence. The Scarlet Knights, who are 28-6 all-time against the Quakers, at this point are battle-tested.
They’ve been thriving with one of the nation’s top offenses – the Scarlet Knights are averaging 14.94 goals per game, good for eighth in the country. Defensively, they’ve allowed only 11.12 goals per game.
Rutgers also has a goalkeeper in Colin Kirst who has routinely stepped up in big moments. The senior has a 8.67 goals-against average in three career NCAA Tournament games and averages 16.67 saves per game.
A win for Rutgers would be historic – it would mean head coach Brian Brecht’s team would make its first Final Four appearance in program history. It would also mark the first time the Scarlet Knights have ever won two consecutive NCAA Tournament games.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers lacrosse: In NCAA title push, Girasole restaurant is all-in