One year ago, Two Boots Bridgeport abruptly closed its doors. On its website, the restaurant posted a message that claimed it could no longer run an eatery in the city.
“The downtown renaissance we had all dreamed of was slow in developing, and it was a constant financial struggle to keep the business going,” said the company, which later replaced the message with a less pessimistic sign-off that gave the impression its closing was simply the result of an expired lease.
But the void left by Two Boots became an opportunity for Freddy Tomaj, a food distribution industry salesman who was planning to open a Connecticut restaurant with his brother Peter, a restaurateur who operated the popular Café 22 in the heart of the Czech Republic’s capital of Prague. While Freddy saw the possibilities of taking over the Two Boots space — at 281 Fairfield Ave., within downtown Bridgeport’s Bijou Square development — Peter came to the idea with a poor image of the city.
“A lot of friends talked trash about Bridgeport,” said Freddy Tomaj. “The only thing Peter knew about Bridgeport was the negative stuff. So, I brought my brother downtown and took him for a walk. And he said, ‘Not bad, not bad.’ Then we got in the car and headed back to Newtown,” where Freddy lives. “And around Exit 5, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I actually like it.’”
Freddy Tomaj, center, with nephew Nick Gjuraj and niece Ann Marie Tomaj.
Although he was born in Kosovo in the Balkans and spent part of his youth in Croatia and the Czech Republic, Tomaj chose to keep the new restaurant’s focus on offerings that would be more familiar to a local clientele instead of Eastern European cuisine. “It’s more like a bar with Italian and pizza and burgers,” he said about the menu at Milano Pizzeria & Wine Bar, which opened for business last August.
As for naming his eatery after the capital of Italy’s northern Lombardy region, Tomaj shrugged. “Milano is my favorite city, which is why we named it Milano,” he said.
The startup costs for Milano were approximately $100,000, with expenses kept low due to the turnkey state of the space. “Everything was here,” Tomaj said. “The only thing we added was two feet of hood, which the fire department wanted because we were using a grill; Two Boots had two fryers and a four-top burner.”
Two Boots’ elevated stage, which hosted live music, was also retained, though converted to a lounge with couches, a coffee table and selection of board games. Tomaj never planned to incorporate live entertainment into his restaurant, and Bijou Square developer Phil Kuchma was also opposed to the prospect.
“Some of the entertainment early on was terrific,” said Kuchma in a recent interview with the Business Journal. “But as the neighborhood became more residential, the entertainment changed a little bit and some of it became a little more obnoxious. People wanted to stay later, but then they had to go outside if they wanted to party. It was becoming too cumbersome to control and Two Boots was not controlling it very well.”
Tomaj also chose not to install a brick oven for his pizza baking, claiming concern over temperature control within the cooking space and quality control in the finished product. But he pointed out other ways for his pizza to stand out from the crowd.
“Our pizzas are a little bigger than others — most are 16 inches, ours are 18 inches,” he said. “Our dough ends up being slightly crispy because we use a little bit of cornmeal on the bottom.”
Tomaj also stressed the use of fresh ingredients for Milano’s meals, although on occasion he reluctantly had to bring in frozen fish due to problems in arranging for the delivery of freshly caught seafood to the Bridgeport market.
His brother Peter, in one of his visits from Prague, Tomaj recalled with a laugh, could taste the frozen origins of a fish dinner without being cued to the history of its migration from sea to table.
Marketing is one area that has frustrated Tomaj. Traditional advertising was used in Milano’s early weeks, but Tomaj could not find any measurable results from the promotion. It was also difficult to determine consistent high and low points during the week. Some days found the Milano staff, which includes members of Tomaj’s family, working frenetically to meet the needs of a capacity crowd, while other days the only sounds in the restaurant came from telephone orders for deliveries.
There was also an occasion when a completely unexpected opportunity came to Milano.
The executive staff of the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball franchise turned up one afternoon last fall and were so impressed with their pizza lunch that they engaged Tomaj in a conversation that led to Milano’s becoming the official team pizza. The restaurant is arranging for sales at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard when the Bluefish season starts this spring.
And Tomaj can also vouch for the power of word-of-mouth marketing to attract attention: he was recently in a Bethel barbershop where a customer who did not know Tomaj offered lavish praise for his recent meal at Milano.