Punjena vešalica (stuffed pork loin) Credit: Matthew Gilson for chicago reader

Bojan Milicevic’s hometown is best known for two things: thick, sweet, and spicy ancho-like red adjvarka peppers, which blanket exterior house walls as they dry each autumn, and September’s Roštiljijada, “barbecue week,” when the main drag is occupied by hundreds of amateur and professional grillers firing up everything from cevapcici to uštipak, to whole hogs and lambs, only upstaged by the record-holding pljeskavica, the world’s largest Serbian burger.

Milicevic was raised in this crucible of the barbecue arts, beginning as a busboy at the age of 11 in his father’s restaurants in the southern Serbian town of Leskovac. At 13 he’d graduated to the grill, building skills that served him after he landed here in his 20s and embarked on a tour of some of the city’s meatier kitchens, most recently Publican Quality Meats and Tempesta Market.

Chef Bojan Milicevic moved to Chicago for the great numbers of Serbs that live here.
Chef Bojan Milicevic moved to Chicago for the great numbers of Serbs that live here.Credit: Matthew Gilson for chicago reader

After a brief stint in D.C., Milicevic moved to Chicago precisely for the great numbers of Serbs that live here (more than any other city outside Belgrade, as many local Serbs like to say [unverified]). His English wasn’t great, but it was good enough to get him through Le Cordon Bleu Chicago. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a shortage of Serbian restaurants around town, but Milicevic wanted his own, one that would represent the food of Leskovac in particular. A little over a year ago, he and his childhood best friend, also Bojan (Jovanovic), bought the restaurant that once housed the Bosnian Kiko’s in Lincoln Square’s Balkan stronghold, inheriting the 4,000-pound smoker that resided in the basement of the accompanying butchery.

In December they opened 016 Restaurant, named for Leskovac’s area code, with a menu of familiar Serbian dishes done southern style, with a few modern culinary tweaks.

It’s not a foam-and-forceps situation, but rarely do most Balkan restaurants roast Slagel Farm chickens, drizzle charred scallion oil over feta-stuffed peppers, or develop a Nashville-style hot chicken sausage with ground ajvarka, let alone offer a cocktail menu built around different Serbian fruit brandies.

One of the cocktails built around Serbian fruit brandies; this one features King Zebra, quince brandy, gin, blackberry wine, simple syrup, and lemon.
One of the cocktails built around Serbian fruit brandies; this one features King Zebra, quince brandy, gin, blackberry wine, simple syrup, and lemon.Credit: Matthew Gilson for chicago reader

You might guess that wrapping caul fat around mushroom-and-cheese-stuffed pork loin to keep it moist and hold in its innards (or the chef’s favorite, calf liver with charred cipollini onions, feta, and garlic vinaigrette) comes out of Culinary Applications 101, but that’s just the way it’s done back home.

If what you’re really after is some nice smoked-kissed fingers of beef and veal cevapcici, or better, Leskovački uštipak, grilled meatballs larded with house-smoked bacon and smoked gouda, there’s not a lot of superfluous technique getting in the way. There’s nothing more elemental than the application of woodsmoke to pork loin, with a side of crispy smashed potatoes and cabbage to scrub the guts.

His pljeskavica is human-sized but ample enough, along with its gouda-and-bacon-stuffed counterpart, both bedded on fat, pillowy pita-like lepinja, which also serves as the vehicle for the notorious komplet lepinja, a baked brunch bread bowl filled with eggs, kajmak, and house coppa.

<i>Leskovačka mućkalica</i> (pork stew) in a branded sourdough boule
Leskovačka mućkalica (pork stew) in a branded sourdough bouleCredit: Matthew Gilson for chicago reader

For all its carnicentricity, there’s a serious bread game afoot at 016. Milicevic’s girlfriend, the pastry chef Angela Diaz, developed the branded sourdough boule that houses the braised pork stew Leskovačka mućkalica, as well as the savory feta-infused cornbread proja, served at brunch with sweet chili butter (she’s also running a pop-up in the former deli space with her gluten-free cookie brand You’re a Cookie!).

In that spirit, don’t come without ordering a burek, the coiled phyllo pastry, its crispy layers supporting molten cheese and spinach (but be prepared to wait 35 minutes for it).

With his experience and the inherited infrastructure from Kiko’s, Milicevic is looking forward to reopening the deli and rolling out some southern Serbian charcuterie, and a lot of other things (but he first needs to develop a government-approved food safety protocol, aka a HACCP plan).

Whatever comes next, Leskovac isn’t far away. “Our food is really good,” says Milicevic. “Our food has a soul. But there is technique I can use to present it [in] a little bit modernized way.”  v