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Pizza, Love, and Understanding

Satko Ibrahimovic celebrates our differences

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"We are not robots," Satko Ibrahimovic says. "We are humans. We have to be different, and to find beauty in the difference between us."

Wiry and hyperkinetic, the 43-year-old Ibrahimovic fills Pizza Bubamara--the tiny takeout place he owns at Wolcott and Wilson--with explosive laughter, rapid-fire storytelling, and occasional bursts into Bosnian, Russian, or one of the other five languages he speaks. Since 1998 Ibrahimovic and his wife, Nicole Richardson, have dished up thin-crust creations topped with things like cherries, fresh oysters, and leeks. Pizza Bubamara offers almost 60 toppings, including 25 types of meat, five kinds of mushrooms, even octopus. As Ibrahimovic sees it, pizza toppings are an expression of individuality, and ordering a pizza should be a celebration of yourself. He scoffs at the national pizza chains. "Pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, green peppers, black olives--that's it!" he says. "They don't let people have choices."

On the pink and green wall next to the Bubamara cash register, a sign proclaims Ibrahimovic "Satko the Pizza King." "I want to treat customers like kings, because I'm a customer in another place, and I want to be treated like a king," he says. "It's about my relationship with customers--not just to take the money and run. I can't make the money and be like Rockefeller or Bill Gates and just disappear. You have to make your name for a long time."

Educated as a lawyer, Ibrahimovic was once a businessman in Banja Luka, in northern Bosnia. "Banja Luka is like Chicago," he says. "It's a business city. We had the first ideas in Bosnia, and afterward those ideas go through all of Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia." By 1992 he owned four restaurants, one a pizzeria, and was making arrangements to open a brewery.

He was vacationing in Greece when the Bosnian war erupted; he first saw his hometown under attack by Serb forces on TV. He spent days in his hotel room, glued to the set, exchanging phone calls with his parents in Banja Luka. They were Bosnian Muslims, and when the campaign of ethnic cleansing began, there was no way he could safely go back. "I was completely surprised," he says. "I was from an educated family, and I was surprised by the primitivism and nationalism that just showed up so abruptly--zoom! We grew up all together, and now I see some people just pretended. It was a big lie."

When his money ran low he moved from the Hilton to a hostel. He found work as a cook, started learning Greek, and eventually recruited a crew of Bulgarians for a housepainting business he started. After a year in Athens he moved to Belgrade, where he had arranged to meet his family. Shortly before his parents fled for Belgrade, Ibrahimovic's father, a professor, was beaten by local Serbs. "They broke his ribs and did some damage. They wanted to kill him, but somehow they didn't finish the job. Fortunately."

From Belgrade, the family filed the paperwork to relocate to the United States. Relatives in Chicago were able to help Ibrahimovic, his father, and his sister get started (his mother followed a year later), but he knew that life would never be the same. "I had a great life over there," Ibrahimovic says. "I was a rich guy. I'm the only millionaire who came from Bosnia to the United States without any money."

Now Ibrahimovic had to learn English, find work, navigate utility companies' phone systems (what number do you press to speak to an operator in Bosnian?), and try to help his elderly parents put memories of the war behind them. He also wanted to to save enough money to open his own business. He lasted one night loading Avon trucks during the third shift. ("If I continued to do that job I would be sad or depressed. And my health is more important than that," he says.) He drove an armored car, making pickups and deliveries at banks and ATMs. "There were maybe three or four hundred applicants, and they hired only one guy who had been in the Green Berets and me--and he quit after three months because it was a very hard job for him," Ibrahimovic says. Richardson recalls, "Every day when I came home from work he'd say, 'I quit my job.'" Ibrahimovic estimates that he went through 25 jobs before opening the pizzeria. "He exaggerates," she says. "I would say probably 10."

"Oh, more," he says. "That's when you met me. Before that, more."

Ibrahimovic met his wife when he was set up on a blind date with one of her friends. The friend asked Richardson to show up at the bar in case she needed to be bailed out. As soon as Richardson walked into Rosa's Lounge, Ibrahimovic zoomed across the room and hugged her. He was an excitable Bosnian, less than a year in the United States and still working on his English. She was a Madison native and a social worker.

"We heard a lot of blues; then we went to jail," she says. "Satko found out that here it's not OK to drive backward down a one-way street into a major intersection." When police found he'd been stopped a month before for the same maneuver, they took him to the station. While Richardson and her friend were still outside wondering what to do, he walked out the front door, laughing with the police, whom he'd apparently charmed. "I knew he couldn't have paid them off, because he didn't have any money on him," she says.

Ibrahimovic says the difference in tastes between his current customers and the ones he had in Banja Luka is huge. But "many people have open minds and they're ready to experiment, to try something new--especially in Chicago.

"For people it is strange--strawberries, cherries, blackberries--and I just try to explain it to them. What's the difference between those and pineapples, on what they call Hawaii pizza? But that's not Hawaii pizza, because a guy from Hawaii told me that it's not even close, but it's OK. They like to put Canadian bacon and pineapple together, and I ask them, what's the difference between cherries and pineapple? Fruit; fruit. One kind of taste; different kind of taste. Why you don't try it?"

Back in Banja Luka, Ibrahimovic staffed his restaurants with chefs who had worked at hotels around Europe, learning something new from each of them. He says it was a Scandinavian who taught him to make the perfect pie. "In Sweden they are making the best pizza. Except for me." In the mid-80s, he entered a Europe-wide competition in Heidelberg, Germany, and, he says, took home the top prize. "They told me that I had great pizza, that nobody in Germany has pizza like that."

His travels have taken him to more than 50 countries and exposed him to a wide variety of dishes. He talks about the popularity of snails and frogs' legs in France and remembers eating crickets in Morocco. But will these exotic ingredients ever find their way onto a Bubamara pizza? He rules out crickets, but snails--"We had snails on pizza in Bosnia," he says.

"On pizza?" His wife eyes him skeptically.

"Yeah. On pizza. Yeah. But not frogs." She murmurs something about it being "one of Satko's tall tales."

Ibrahimovic has a way of shaping the tastes of customers who call to place an order. He makes suggestions and defends unorthodox choices. He knows that crafting the perfect pie can take time, but he doesn't mind. "Sometimes I'm thinking up an order for 20 minutes," he says. "Everybody--the drivers, the cooks, my wife--they're screaming at me, 'Hurry up, hurry up. Don't do that. You're wasting too much time.'

"You can say, 'OK, let's go, quick quick!' But I don't like it when somebody does that to me. I like if I can choose between something. It's normal if you're changing your mind ten times in ten seconds. You're trying to figure out what kind of taste you want exactly at that moment, because every day is different. It's not the same when it's rainy, when it's a sunny day, or cold or hot."

"People really trust his creative judgment," says Richardson. "We have some customers who'll call--actually it gets on my nerves, because they'll only talk to him. Or they'll say, 'Just tell Satko to make me a pizza.'"

Ibrahimovic plans to open another Bubamara in the fall--a larger space with a dining room and a more inviting atmosphere. "A restaurant that keeps two, three tables open until five o'clock in the morning" is what he has in mind. But he refuses to give away any details about changes to the menu. "It's a secret, because we never know what's going to happen," says Richardson.

He still feels a strong connection to Bosnia--which he describes as being "one part like Illinois, one part like New York State, one part like Colorado, and one part like the Virgin Islands"--but he has no plans to return. Everyone in his family has left Banja Luka, scattered to Finland, France, Germany, and Chicago. "Now that I've lived here, I love this country," he says. "People are always asking me where I come from because I have a strong accent, and I'm very proud when I say 'north side of Chicago.' Why not? I fell in love with this city immediately."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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