From The North Shore Weekend newspaper
Jeff Urso, of Lake Forest, is no stranger to pizza.
“I’ve been working at pizza places my whole life,” he said on a recent fall day, at—you guessed it—a pizza place. But a few years ago, on a trip to Minnesota with his son, a travel hockey player, Urso saw a pizzeria he had never seen before. In Mall of America, one of its 400 stores was busy serving customers custom-made, artisanal pizza. Customers could adorn their pizza with any topping, any cheese, any sauce, and behind a counter they’d throw it in an oven and have it ready in minutes.
It was like a pizza version of Chipotles. It was a revelation.
“Man, I want to have this in my hometown,” said Urso to himself. He was in a unique position to bring one: as co-owner of Donati’s Pizza in Lake Forest, Vernon Hills, and Schaumburg, Urso and his friend, Ray Bozic, already had a local chain of pizzerias.
Urso and Bozic had gone to Lake Forest High School together and were lifelong friends. The duo did what any young high school student sitting in a cafeteria with their friends would do—dream about starting a business with their closest pals—only they executed. In 2011, they opened what would be their first pizza place, a 900 square foot “to put it the best terms possible ‘hole in the wall’” and beat the odds. (According to a frequently cited study by Ohio State University on failed restaurants, 60 percent do not make it past the first year, and 80 percent go under in five.)
Instead, Donati’s exploded in popularity. For a time, they ran a promotion where they were selling slices of pizza for a $1—and they were selling 1,000 slices a day. The friends invested it all right back into their business: and expanded, and expanded, and expanded again. Growing up, there were not a lot of places to hangout for teenagers. Urso and Bozic changed all of that.
In four years, Donati’s grew from three employees (two of which were the founders) and a 900 square feet hole in the wall, to a four-unit local pizzeria chain employing 50 people.
While the other pizzerias are more traditional—like Ferentino’s Pizzeria in Lake Forest, the first pizza place Urso ever worked at—the new location in Lake Bluff is entirely different.
“You know how that one time you wanted to try jalapeno with ranch, and you’re like, ‘Man, I want anchovies on that too!’” said Urso. “Well this is the place you can do [that].”
Donati’s Pizza in Lake Bluff has 42 toppings you can choose from: anchovies and roasted garlic, sautéed onions and pineapple, artichoke hearts and deli meats and edamame and jalapenos. (Artichoke hearts are the favorite.) The concept isn’t new, but Urso believes there’s a very good chance that they are the only fast-fired pizza place serving Chicago deep dish in the country: eight minutes until ready (four minutes for regular thin-crust).
Making pizza at home? Urso stresses one virtue over all: Patience.
“In small batches its actually really simple: It’s all about proofing your dough,” said Urso. “A lot of people are impatient; you got to let chemistry kind of work itself out. Let that dough get soft and rise.”
Donati’s Pizza is located at 203 South Waukegan Rd in Lake Bluff.
TOTAL TIME: 2 hours
Donati’s Hand-Pressed “Northside” Pizza
1 pound all-purpose flour
.25 liter of water
1 ounce olive oil
Pinch of salt and sugar
Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and let the flour rise for 1 hour. Weigh out 9 ounces. Crisco a pie tray, kneading the dough with your hands and pressing it out to desired length. Fill ¾ of the dough with cheese of your choosing. Top with spinach, garlic, and artichoke hearts; placing favorite tomato sauce on top. Preheat oven to 450 degrees (the hotter, the better). Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until dough is golden brown.
The North Shore Weekend newspaper is published weekly.