Via Williamsburg

Brooklyn Pizza’s story is in its name

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Susan France

You walk into a pizza place and sometimes it has photos on the wall of New York City or other places associated with the food. It doesn’t indicate authenticity — it’s just there to prime you for New York-style pizza, emphasis on the style.

Some places put an East Coast landmark in their name, which raises expectations further, expectations that are objectively hard to meet. But there’s simply no other suitable name for Brooklyn Pizza, a little shop across the street from Boulder High. Genc Sokolaj is connected to the namesake borough, and he’s got the story to prove it.

It’s a story that feels like it should be a yarn — starting in the Bahamas, or actually the former Yugoslavia. Sokolaj grew up working in family bakeries before trying to open a food business when he got older. “I was trying to open a bar but they didn’t give me a license,” Sokolaj says. So he opened a clothing store, and it was successful. He did that for eight years and then wanted to get out.

The plan was to travel: “six months Bahamas, six months Europe, work on English, work on food; learn, see, explore,” he says.

While he was in the Bahamas, war broke out in Yugoslavia (Sokolaj is from what is now Croatia), so he hopped a boat, entered the U.S. and landed in New York City; he had some family to crash with in The Bronx. After two months — his relatives were “too old-fashioned” for him — he found a cheap spot in a pre-gentrified Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. About $130 for a room per month. It was a tough time, but he learned valuable lessons.

“That first year and a half was really rough,” he says. “I worked in so many places, but got so much experience because of that.”

As Sokolaj tells it, he worked at restaurants throughout the city for two to three weeks at a time and when employers asked for his papers to keep employing him, he had none — he’d left his passport on the boat, he says.

“They’d say what’s your Social Security number,” he says. “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, to be honest. I’d say, ‘55739624836845,” and they’d say, ‘Why’d you give me so many numbers.’ I’d say, ‘Just take less numbers.’”

So Sokolaj bounced around restaurants. This was 1989-90, he estimates. He was struggling financially, but connecting with the community. He was playing basketball, him and another bulky Croatian dude, every morning on the local court. He was navigating a neighborhood that had some gang and drug issues, to put it mildly. In time, though, he got his footing, and Sokolaj, who had already opened and run a successful business once before, decided to open a restaurant with $47 in his pocket.

“I was the pioneer of Williamsburg,” he says with a laugh. “Opened it in ’92. In that time, I can tell you on one hand how many places were there.”

Out of a redesigned garage, Sokolaj started selling Mediterranean and Italian food. The response was robust, but a five-month, never-ending winter rolled in — “It was on CNN: ‘Don’t walk your dog.’ It was that bad.” He’d have to break holes in the snowpack in order for people to see the restaurant, let alone enter it, he says. 

Susan France

Unfortunately, that killed that restaurant. With some debts to pay family and friends, he started working again. With some time and experience in the U.S., he was able to retain jobs at high-end Manhattan restaurants — Da Silvano, La Lanterna di Vittorio — waiting tables, manning cook stations and eventually managing.

It was a good time for Sokolaj. He moved to a big apartment in Chelsea for a year with some other Croatians (an apartment once occupied by Debbie Harry, he says), before running back to Williamsburg for a much larger apartment all to himself, his bike and his dog.

Then, life got a little complicated. He went back to Croatia for a bit, but almost as soon as he got there, he got a call from his girlfriend back in the States. 

“She goes, ‘Congratulations, I’m pregnant,’” he says.

See, it does sound like a yarn, right?

Sokolaj talked to some “old people” — his mother and grandmother — who said he should invite her over to Croatia.

“I said, ‘Mom, she’s not gonna come here to give birth in 18th-century hospitals.’ But I called her and said, ‘You wanna come here?’ She says, ‘Yeah.’”

So she came, learned the language, and they had a son. Neither liked the post-war feeling of Croatia so they thought it might be wise to come back to the U.S. They decided on Denver, where she’s from. They landed here, had two more kids, the marriage dissolved, and he took the kids back to New York, nothing in his pockets. He was starting from scratch in New York, again. They stayed with a friend, the kids sleeping in a tent in the living room. 

“It was the hardest part of my life. Oh my god, it was unbelievable. I didn’t have money, didn’t have nothing,” he says.

So Sokolaj called on the people he knew while making it the first time in New York and found success with a few consulting jobs. A friend lent his family an apartment in West New York, New Jersey. The consulting jobs were a good fit — Sokolaj, who had been in so many restaurants, found a niche at mismanaged restaurants by hammering the details of service he had learned over the years: waiters stand here, they pour wine like this, they upsell tables like this. 

He came into restaurants, and “I did WD-40,” he says.

Though New York gave him a second chance, it was tough to raise a family there, and it was changing. So the kids moved back to Denver with a relative, and Sokolaj worked for a couple years in New York, living in Brooklyn again, visiting Colorado when he could. Then, wanting to see his family more, he says, he moved to Colorado for good about seven years ago.

Sokolaj met an “angel from the sky” landlord in Boulder who rented him the space that now occupies Brooklyn Pizza. Here he was starting a business again. He worked on the dough, and the day he figured out the right recipe — using top-line Caputo “OO” Americano flour after a month of trial-and-error — he opened Brooklyn Pizza.

So there it is. The name of the business is the story. And the pizza’s good — best if you get the ultra-thin-crust slices right out of the oven. And try the lasagna; it’s excellent.

The pandemic has put a crimp in sales — Brooklyn Pizza is down about 80% from its daily average in pizza slice sales, though dinner service has picked up a bit. But if there’s someone who can navigate turmoil, seems like it’s Sokolaj.