This October, suburban staple Nick’s Pizza and Pub (“bastion of my childhood,” one Chicago staffer tells us) is moving into the city proper: Owner Nick Sarillo will open a third location in Lincoln Square (2434 W. Montrose Ave.) for the restaurant that, just a few months ago, was named one of America’s Best Small Companies by Forbes.
Sarillo’s route to becoming a restaurateur has been, like the shape of the pizza he makes, sort of circular. His dad briefly owned a pizza place in Carpentersville, and, when Sarillo was growing up, ran Fran’s Beef—a quintessential Chicago diner, serving Italian sausage and po’ boys—in Pilsen. (He sold Fran’s in the early ‘90s; it’s still there, with pretty much the same menu.) But after spending his childhood in restaurants, Sarillo rebelled against the food-making industry once he graduated from high school. “I declared my independence. I didn’t want anything more to do with restaurants,” he says. “I wanted to be a carpenter, building houses and remodeling.”
And so he started a contracting business, moved to the suburbs and settled down; pretty quickly, however, he noticed a distinct lack of family-friendly restaurants, a dearth of middle ground between fine dining and Chuck E. Cheese’s. To fill the gap, he opened Nick’s Pizza and Pub in 1995 in Crystal Lake, and, a decade later, a second spot in Elgin. He’s had plans to move into the city since 2007, but was thwarted by the recession and some financial troubles. Now, he finally gets to make the leap. “I’m just getting back on track with my original idea, bringing it back home. I was brought up in the city of Chicago,” he says, adding that what matters is “the purpose and the model. We give back to the community.”
The pizza at Nick’s is traditional thin crust, with a few interesting variations. To begin with, the vegetable toppings are sliced rather than diced, and then placed on top of the cheese—it helps the veggies cook through, and, Sarillo says, gives the entire slice a fuller flavor. As for the meat, the restaurant gets its Italian sausage from Fabbri’s, a longtime Chicago sausage manufacturer, using a half-century-old family recipe. And Sarillo is particularly proud of his double-decker pizza, the decadent, deceptive pie-making style in which another set of dough, sauce, and toppings are layered on top of an existing pizza, hiding it from view.
In line with Sarillo’s family-friendly vision, the design of the restaurant is cozy: a few scattered TVs, a small menu, and around 200 seats. Customers are treated to a bowl of unshelled peanuts when they arrive and encouraged to throw their peanut shells on the ground, which Sarillo says stems from his own childhood. Expect Nick’s Pizza to come with Sarillo’s trademark, slightly hyperbolic enthusiasm. “[At the other restaurants,] I was having such a positive experience for my vision for the family and the neighborhood,” he says, adding, “This is what America needs more of. Why can’t I bring more of this?”