I love experiencing various microcultures of big cities through walking around and taking in the vibe of different neighborhoods. The best find is coming upon a mom-and-pop restaurant with a backstory of taking a concept and making a go of it.
As I walked into the unassuming storefront of Pizzeria Deville, I was greeted by the smell of authentic dough toasting, and it brought me back to the streets of Capri and Sorrento in southern Italy. The dining area was busy for a 2pm seating on a Sunday. Guests were chatting away while a Bill Withers tune played quietly in the background.
Pizzeria Deville is the newest addition to a solid string of restaurants popping up in Libertyville, a village earning its reputation as a mini-restaurant mecca in the far north suburbs of Chicago. Not the typical pizza place down the street, Pizzeria Deville is a woodfire oven pizza joint, with a twist in its menu and flair in its decor.
I looked up to see beautiful custom arched woodwork framing the ceiling. Piles of wood were stacked in the middle of the restaurant, acting as a room divider. Upon finishing his conversation with other customers, proprietor and Chef John Durning turned around to greet me. By his demeanor, I could tell there was a gregarious character behind a genuine smile. I asked John about the décor which included saw blades and wooden tools on the walls. “All of this craziness came 90% out of my head...These saw blades remind me of pizza; round and have teeth.This particular saw reminds me of the Chicago skyline. I looked on eBay, found things and decided I needed these in the restaurant.” And with the focus on pizza, John adds, ”I have no beer on tap and no hood…. I wanted this place and smell to be about the oven and roasting the pizza.”
John saw the resurgence in Neopolitan-style thin crust pizza across the country years ago and thought Libertyville would be a prime location. “Our town was screaming for it. This is the one idea that jumped out and I knew I could execute.”
The Irresistible Taste of Restaurants
With a background in restaurant management and commercial real estate, the stars seemingly aligned for John in opening Pizzeria Deville. Soon turning 50, John made a career leap at the right time. “I’m professionally young and couldn’t retire. This niche didn’t exist in Libertyville. I love the dynamics of the town itself and have a good flavor of (commercial) sales, what things cost and what competition looks like from working here in the finance market.”
John grew up in New York, the home of pizza joints. He recalls childhood memories at Vinnies, a restaurant he visited weekly that served food he was enamored with. “It was a place where I’d see friends and family. The owner knew everyone. And that appealed to me.”
Upon graduating college, John initially worked in real estate finance. But a family friend who opened restaurants across the Northeast asked John for assistance. John managed a woodfire pizza restaurant in the Hartford area, another restaurant in Vermont, and a seafood house in Boston.
Once a member of a community theater, John describes restaurant covers being akin to theater performances. “I love the creative element and front of the house exposure to customers. I love the stage of it. Every night, it’s a new crowd, new set of dynamics. We are cooking at a different time. Never do you have a (safety) net.
Sneaking into Kitchens
When John first started working in banking and real estate, he would find any way to get into the kitchens of his favorite establishments including Franny’s and Motorino in Brooklyn. His passion and love of exploring the process did not cease when he moved to the north suburbs of Chicago. “I was a vice president of a bank and worked at Chipotle on weekends because I had to know how it worked. As I would leave for Chipotle, my wife would mock me, ‘You forgot your hat and your tee shirt’.”
And in learning the process of these mom-and-pop operations, John also learned the value of the people behind the line. “These cooks…people take them for granted. They work 2.5 shifts. They are always in a good mood. I respect and love them -they are my heroes.”
Creating the menu
John combined recipes from favorite places he worked in the past and brought along his trusted pizza peel, a gift from his brother. It now sits on the wall in the downstairs dining room. “That peel was with me over the course of 20 years…[and represents] what I’ve come up with on the menu.”
In creating the pizzas, John wanted to piece together tastes he loved from his childhood, from experimentation and tastes reminiscent of home meals, like breakfast. With his signature dough recipe, John created “Sunnyside Place” – a pie that includes sausage, bacon, potato and a cage free egg that sits right on top. John’s signature pizza, “My Favorite Pie”, is a pie reminiscent of youth – shaved meatballs, extra marinara, red chili flakes, parmesan, fior di latte and basil. But John’s current favorite (and mine) is the “Motorino Omaggio” which is topped with bacon, brussel sprouts, garlic and a balsamic reduction.
But putting together the menu and the restaurant did not just happen overnight. Like anyone making the leap and undertaking opening a restaurant, John faced some challenges. “My biggest fear was the fear of failing. There were constant challenges. I would even dream of us burning pizzas. But once I decided to do it [and move forward], I wasn’t going to be swayed.”
Family lies at the heart of Pizzeria Deville. With one in college, John works side-by-side with his other two children. “I would love for one of my kids to take over someday. But that’ll be up to them and our ability to continue to improve everyday. I love working with my family.”
Learning from his mentors back in New York, John hopes to create the same nostalgia, familial atmosphere and inspiration for his own customers. “I want this place to smell great, and for the food to taste as good as the place smells. It doesn’t have to be the fanciest. It’s a community pizza place. And nothing would make me happier if these kids playing with dough come back 20 years with their kids.“
You can find more information on John Durning and his crew at www.pizzeriadeville.com.
Pizzeria Deville, 404 N. Milwaukee Ave, Libertyville, IL
Tip: Make your booking earlier in the week to avoid weekend rush.
Joy Bach loves to try new things and travel with her husband. They plan every day of their trips around...food! Joy's husband loves to cook, while she loves to eat. Their children have entered the culinary world with making savory and sweet pies. Through Joy’s eclectic background in writing, marketing and entertainment, she constantly meets new and passionate people. Joy will fill you in on the story behind what makes the food you eat so great. www.joybach.com