For Chef Safeta Zeljic and her husband Nebojsa Zeljic, the creative minds behind Gaga Pizzeria, one of Calgary’s best pizza joints, the dream of opening a small, family-run pizzeria has been 23 years in the making.
“We were always hoping to open a restaurant, that was our plan,” explains Nebojsa, who immigrated to Canada with his family in 1994 from the former Yugoslavia. “I would say it was our dream to open some little place like this and have fun and make people happy. It was never the right time until five years ago, but here we are.”
After meeting over 30 years ago in none other than a kitchen, the duo, who have been cooking professionally for 29 years, have just recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of their restaurant.
“My wife and I, we came together because of food. Look at us now. It sounds silly, but what we are doing is truly meant to be,” says Nebojsa.
Since its inception in February 2012, Gaga Pizzeria has been satisfying the downtown core with some of the finest pies Calgary has to offer. The pizzeria’s name comes from the endearing term Nebojsa calls his wife, Gaga, which roughly translates to darling.
“I like pizza, pizza is a comfort food,” says Nebojsa. “It’s hard to screw up pizza, and it’s the type of food that can put everyone around a table and bring them together. Everyone loves pizza.”
“We have people all around the world coming here, and we want everyone who walks through the door to feel like they are coming home.” —Nebojsa Zeljic
The pizzeria, announcing itself to people walking by with its bold, red block lettering, remains unfathomed to most Calgarians, as it is concealed beneath the dark shadows of Calgary’s 12th Avenue skyline. To those lucky enough to have experienced the rustic, thin-crust pizzas offered by Chef Gaga, a whimsical culinary experience coupled with incredibly knowledgeable and friendly staff is unforgettable.
Gaga Pizzeria appears to be just another neighbourhood pizza joint, yet it is far from it. The décor is emphatically unique, and the scale of the place spans just 10 seats over one small room, yet there is an overwhelming feeling of home.
“The purpose of this place is that people feel at home, that they feel welcomed,” says Nebojsa. “We have people all around the world coming here, and we want everyone who walks through the door to feel like they are coming home.”
“It’s not about the money,” says Nebojsa. “We just want everyone who comes in here to try our food [and] leave happy.”
On Gaga’s front door, patrons are greeted with a small white sign that reads, “Offering free food for all who have no money,” on the front door. A sense of warmth soon follows after taking the first steps on the marbled granite floor. A display case that is chock-full of calzones and baked goods along with specialty European chocolate bars perched on top.
Evocative and nuanced paintings are decorated on each wall with precision, including portraits of the great Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American best known for his contributions to the modern electricity system. Sticky notes containing positive comments from countless gleeful guests hang loosely around the pieces of artwork.
“In the five years we have been open, we have met hundreds and hundreds of people, some of them who we have become very great friends with,” says Nebojsa. “Meeting these people is by far the most valuable thing we’ve taken away from this business.”
A plethora of currency ranging from Indian rupees to classic Canadian two dollar bills are stuck to the roof, detailing the absurd amount of fans that Gaga Pizzeria has amassed in just five short years. With some of the finest reviews of any Calgary restaurant proven by the many five star reviews on Zomato, Yelp and TripAdvisor, the Zeljic's prove that a home cooked meal is arguably the best.
“We want this place to feel like it’s an old friend’s house, a place that you are familiar with. It’s all about comfort for us. Comfort for our guests, comfort food, and just a comfortable atmosphere,” says Nebojsa.
The feeling of an old friend’s home is hard to miss, as a worn down Mendelssohn piano rests in the corner next to a rusty red acoustic guitar. They invite anyone who is fortunate enough to walk into Gaga Pizzeria a chance to fill the room with music, just as someone would at a family reunion.
Chalkboards detailing the menu hang overhead the open kitchen, where one can observe Chef Gaga craft masterpiece after masterpiece. It includes their signature pie, the Signora Gaga, which is a sweet and salty creation topped with figs, prosciutto, spinach and mushrooms.
The aroma of Gaga Pizzeria is reminiscent of home, as well. There is the constant wafting of crisp dough making its way out of the kitchen.
But, due to the Zeljic's passion for food and their love of people, leaving Gaga and walking down Calgary’s Beltline is incredibly exciting, as you can plan your next visit. Guests can count on the two compassionate owners to remember your name and greet you with open arms, a smile, and a piping hot slice of pizza.
“We have a blessing of a job. To be able to feed people, see them smile and make them happy is an incredible gift we have been given. Not everyone is as lucky as us. It’s a wonderful, and incredibly rewarding experience,” says Nebojsa.
- By Colin Macgillivray