Restaurant Review

Ruckus expands but the staples still set the standard

CorrespondentSeptember 20, 2012 

  • More information Ruckus 1101 Market Center Drive, Morrisville 919-388-3500 www.ruckuspizza.com Cuisine: American, pizza Rating: **1/2 Prices: $$ Atmosphere: family-friendly sports pub Noise level: moderate to high Service: friendly and attentive Recommended: shark bites, original chopped salad, brisket Philly, pastas, specials Open: Lunch and dinner daily (open nightly until 2 a.m.) Reservations: not accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

If you’ve eaten at the new Ruckus in Morrisville, chances are you had to wait for a table. Even seats on the patio – a sprawling, awning-covered space equipped with four large-screen TVs to supplement the ample supply indoors – have been hard to come by.

No wonder. The restaurant is the third in a small local chain that has attracted a growing fan base by evolving with its target demographic: the burgeoning local population of upwardly mobile residents, many of them families with young children. And who better to take aim at that moving target than a couple of young, upwardly mobile families?

Robert and Ashley Royster teamed up with Ryan and Amy Pilz to open the first Ruckus in Mission Valley in 1999. Recent graduates of N.C. State, the foursome designed the restaurant around their desire for a pizza-and-bar alternative to the college town hangouts on Hillsborough Street.

By the time they opened the second Ruckus in Cary in 2008, the couples had children. An extended menu that included an assortment of pastas – some from family recipes – reflected their evolving tastes and their status as families with children.

The Morrisville location, which opened in late April, raises the ante again by adding a sushi bar and chef-driven specials to the offering. Recent off-menu temptations have ranged from shrimp, crab and avocado spring rolls to linguine with giant black tiger prawns in a lemony white wine-butter sauce. Occasional beer and wine dinners give executive chef Scott Schabot, who has worked locally at a variety of restaurants from the Hibernian to Gravy, further opportunity to stretch his culinary wings.

Sushi chef Hoang Nguyen’s offering is modest by Japanese restaurant standards: barely a dozen nigiri and sashimi options, and an assortment of house specialty rolls such as the Phuket (red snapper and avocado, topped with tempura crunch and eel sauce). I found the quality to be no better than average, but its very presence on the menu is evidence – if any is needed nowadays – that sushi has swum smack into the middle of mainstream American tastes.

For all the menu’s novelties, the dishes you’ll see on most table are the pizzas, pastas and pub fare that are the foundation of the Ruckus reputation. An emphasis on fresh ingredients and scratch preparation – unusually high for this sort of place – are the mortar that keeps that foundation solid.

The popular spinach-and-artichoke dip starter is made with fresh cream and baby spinach, for instance, and those kernels of corn in the quesadilla were cut from a cob in the kitchen. The corn turns up again in a delightful chopped salad, where it’s joined by applewood-smoked bacon, tomatoes and fresh avocado, molded into an attractive cylinder and topped with crisp potato straws.

The menu informs you that the appetizer listed as “shark bites” is in fact blackened mahi, and that it’s “straight from Woody’s in St. John” – the Caribbean island that happens to be a favorite vacation spot of the owners. Judging by the Ruckus version, it’s understandable why they brought the recipe home as a souvenir.

Pizzas are, you might say, the cornerstone of the Ruckus reputation. Topping combinations such as the Rustica (Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, roma tomatoes and capers) and the Ranch Bacon Chicken have had loyal followings for years. The thin crust is consistent, but in my opinion not particularly distinguished in an increasingly competitive pizza market.

My opinion appears to be in the minority, though, based on the plethora of pies (including gargantuan 24-inchers, enough to feed half a dozen people, starting at $23) on the tables in Morrisville.

Still, for my money, pastas are a better bet. The best-selling spicy Alfredo, say, which you can have with your choice of pasta (including whole wheat penne for those wishing to alleviate their guilt at consuming all that creamy goodness). Or Mama’s cannelloni: sheets of homemade pasta wrapped around a savory hash of beef, pork, onions and Italian herbs, and draped with an Italian flag of marinara, béchamel and pesto sauces.

The obligatory burger comes in a variety of guises, from patty melt to Carolina Classic (homemade chili, slaw and onions). Regardless of your choice, you’ll likely find that it satisfies the craving. Better still is the brisket Philly, a beefeater’s bonanza of house-brined, slow-cooked meat and gooey cheese sauce on a hoagie roll.

If you managed to snag a seat at the bar while were waiting for that table, you may have indulged in a cocktail made with one of the fruit-infused vodkas on display at the end of the bar, tempting you in their oval glass dispensers like giant jellybeans in a candy store for grownups. By the time you got to your table, you had no doubt relaxed into the Ruckus spirit.

“We’re shooting for the kind of place we like,” says Ryan Pilz, who manages the Morrisville restaurant. “A warm, laid-back place where you feel comfortable ordering an $8 sandwich or a $20 entree special.”

Looks like they’ve come pretty close to the target.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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