WILMINGTON — Tony Perez slid open the walk-up window at 1215 4th St. for a light launch of Pizzeria Don Luca on Tuesday, ready to churn out its first pies to diners on the Northside of downtown Wilmington.
“It’s just been a very soft opening,” he said, “making sure my process is right, making sure my register and my menus are right.”
Opening a pizzeria wasn’t necessarily the top priority for the entrepreneur; he really wanted to launch a food truck first. The dream started in 2014 when he rolled out his first truck in North Carolina, but it only lasted six or seven months.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Perez admitted. “It was my first business.”
So he pivoted into sales for Verizon and was transferred to Phoenix, Arizona. Still, being part of the restaurant industry never drifted far from his dreams.
“Every time I wanted to open a food truck, XYZ would always come up and it never could happen for me,” he said.
Over the past year, Perez switched jobs again and pursued real estate at a time when the industry was booming. He benefited from it, bought a couple of houses and built a few more. Then in April, he decided to move his family back South.
When a relocation to Miami didn’t work out, Perez thought back to vacations during his youth. Though he lived in Burlington, North Carolina, throughout his high-school years, he and his family always visited Wrightsville Beach.
“It was my go-to place,” he said.
Upon the decision to make the Port City his home, Perez immediately began looking for a commissary kitchen in Wilmington to launch his food truck. Yet, he started running into roadblocks. Turns out, commissary kitchens — remote locations that food trucks rent to prepare their food within health-code standards — are hard to come by currently in the area’s crowded food-truck scene.
So Perez turned to a mentor in the business to ask for advice.
“I said, ‘Hey, man, what do you think I should do?’ He’s like, ‘Look for a beat up or abandoned restaurant,’” Perez recalled. “Literally, two weeks before that — and I kid you not — I had written down ‘pizzeria two years from now.’ And then the pizzeria came.’”
And it wasn’t “beat up.”
Formerly Wheelhouse Pizza, the 360-square-foot, 1930’s building was renovated earlier in the spring by Mark Milner. Its bright red roof visible from MLK Parkway, the white building is located next to Jervay Park in the Brooklyn Arts District. Milner ended up folding Wheelhouse after facing health issues in August, and shortly thereafter Perez was in contact with Momentum Properties’ Terry Espy to take over the space.
“And here we are, doing good with a chef that has 15 years of experience training with an Italian chef from Verona. You know, we’re just trying to bring some good food over here for the Wilmington community,” Perez said.
Though his business plan reversed, his original concept of operating a food truck isn’t off the table.
“First, I want to get Don Luca off the ground,” Perez said.
Pies at Pizzeria Don Luca — “my son’s name is Luca,” Perez explained — are concocted from scratch, dough to sauce. Nothing is pre-made, the restaurateur emphasized.
“It’s not like Americanized pizza, with the dough that’s very thick,” Perez said. “It’s thin-crust pizza — very crispy — and fresh sauce. Nothing from a can, 100% natural. We’re keeping it simple.”
The menu consists of 12 pizzas. A few traditional ones, such as the Margherita and Napolitana, can be found alongside more creative options. A Mexican pizza comes topped with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, bacon and jalapeño, while the Carpricciosa has fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, ham, mushroom, sliced tomato, and artichokes.
Also on the Don Luca menu: calzones (Hawaiian and ham and pepperoni), pastas (primavera with red sauce and boscaiola with white sauce), salads, and a Nutella dessert pie.
Plus, there are vegan options (cheese and “pepperoni” pies).
“Everything that we have on the menu can be made vegan,” Perez, who doesn’t eat cheese, informed. He plans to dedicate even more energy to this crowd of diners with the launch of a vegan food truck. Perez said he is working on a three-month timeline before he sets its wheels in motion. It will be parked at Don Luca but also be mobile.
“There seems to be a need in town for it,” he noted. “But, right now, I’m just focusing on the pizzeria.”
Currently, bike delivery is available along North Fourth Street and downtown to the Pier 33 area. “A lot of the Brooklyn Arts District bars have been calling us for delivery already,” Perez said. “They were ordering like crazy last night — it was wild.”
Six picnic tables are in front of the walk-up location for folks to enjoy pizza on the premises. Menu prices range from $16-$20.
Pizzeria Don Luca will operate from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Sunday and Monday through Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed Tuesday.
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