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Dining

Dining

What makes a great restaurant is great food. But restaurateur Ralph Davino sees more. As owner of the popular Italian restaurant, Pompei, Davino offers plenty of great food, but more importantly, the restaurant offers a sense of family, backed by 100 years of tradition.

Pompei began in 1909 when Davino’s grandfather, a baker from near Naples, Italy, opened a bakery on the ground floor of a six-flat on South Loomis. The business took its name from the neighborhood’s Our Lady of Pompeii Church. The family settled in, with Davino’s grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins occupying the four flats above the bakery and adjacent tavern.

“Everyone worked for my grandfather,” Davino remembers. Eventually, following old-world tradition, the business was passed down to the oldest uncle. Then in 1984, Ralph took over the small, counter-service business.

“We had two tables,” Davino says. He moved the business to West Taylor, where he could seat 52. “I thought it would be too big, but as soon as we opened, it was already too small.” He credits this boom in part to the location on a bigger street, but also says that word of mouth about Pompei was spreading. In 1991 he moved to the present location at 1531 West Taylor, increasing capacity to 240, equipped with a large outdoor patio and a party room that seats 100, and is popular for private events. The restaurant does outside catering as well.

Pompeii

Word spread, and the business demanded expansion. Pompei branches popped up all over Chicagoland, with two Little Pompei restaurants in the Loop. But while the expansion was exciting, it became difficult for Davino to be everywhere. Concentrating on the original location, the other properties were sold off, with the agreement that Davino would serve as a consultant for the new owners. “Everything’s the same in all the restaurants,” he explains. “The same recipes, the same family traditions.”

Davino knows that much of the Taylor Street restaurant’s success stemmed from his location. Nearby Pompei has become a popular place for medical and dental students from Rush University, as well as the families of patients seeking a friendly, homey place to eat. The restaurant also draws students from the University of Illinois, area firefighters and police officers. “People find their way here by word of mouth,” he says. “When a place is there for a hundred years, people know about it.”

Taylor Street

But even more important than location, Davino believes, is the high level of customer attention provided. There is no wait staff at Pompei—orders are placed at the counter and the kitchen staff brings out the food. Davino calls this type of service “casual.” This casual familiarity can be found in the restaurant’s atmosphere: regulars are greeted by name and tableside conversations with the staff are common. Pompei is a place where regular groups meet and if those groups request Davino prepare something not on the menu, he is happy to comply.

“It’s family here,” he stresses, a theme that is carried through the decoration as well—one long wall boasts photographs of past family members, who contributed to Pompei. “Everybody in my family worked here,” Davino says proudly, “I only wish that my father and my uncle could have seen what I’ve done. I think that would make them smile.”

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