Jovana Batkovic isn’t expecting to work when she shows up to Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge on a Saturday night in navy heeled cowgirl boots, flared yellow paisley-print pants, and a cutoff T-shirt emblazoned with a woman on a chopper, but seeing the crowd at the Cape Coral haunt she owns with her husband, Greg Gebhard, that’s exactly what she does. She hops on the line, a walking bolt of energy (the counter to Greg’s unflappable demeanor), and spends a few hours slinging cocktails and pizza to the eager crowd. “My feet were killing me,” Jovana says.
Born in Bosnia, Jovana fled the war to Germany before immigrating to the United States in 1997 and landing in Cleveland. In Ohio, she earned her undergrad in theater and master’s in social work. Her career in social work grew her empathy, but it also proved a recipe for burnout. She met Greg playing pinball in 2008, and soon after, he joined Jovana’s formerly all-girls band HotChaCha as the bass guitarist. Together they toured the country, sleeping in their van or couch surfing to save money so they could eat at the best-reviewed restaurants in each city.
The couple relocated to Florida in 2012 and opened Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge the next year (May marks the restaurant’s 10th anniversary), putting their dining-out research and thrifty ethic to work as they cultivated the decor and menu. The duo tackled most of the interior themselves, creating a distinct atmosphere: Red light bathes collaged tabletops where diners, nestled in their booths, can peruse and purchase the pop art-inspired local works hanging on the walls. In another room, pinball machines populate the space.
In lieu of big spending on decor, Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge invests in quality ingredients, the bulk of which they source from local purveyors, such as Fort Myers institution Pair-A-Dice Produce and the three-decade-old J. Van Hart Provisions. The menu is an eclectic mix: You’ll find corn dogs next to marinated olives, or a heap of tater tots served with a flight of homemade sauces. Pizzas, which make up the bulk of the menu, don’t conform to your standard toppings, either. There’s the Black Gold topped with black garlic, seasonal fruit, gorgonzola, mozzarella, fresh basil and prosciutto; the Truffle Shuffle with truffle oil, garlic, cremini mushrooms and crisp sage; and the capsaicin-heavy Final Desecration loaded with housemade ranch, hot chicken, bacon and jalapeño. “I always followed food fashions,” Jovana says. “I ate everything. There’s nothing I wouldn’t try.” Meanwhile, Greg’s always pondering what unusual inspirations he can turn into a pizza or cocktail.
Themed cocktail menus find unique inspiration, as well. A past list was composed entirely of drinks named after employees’ pets, like the Puff, a riff on a Moscow Mule, made with Polish żubrówka (or, herbal bison grass vodka), spiced pear liqueur, ginger beer and blood orange, that proved popular enough to earn a spot on the regular menu. Another libation, the Shame! Shame! Shame! (vodka, honey, bitters, lemon, pomegranate and grapefruit juice) was named for the iconic Game of Thrones scene.
The dynamic, punk-rock vibe space transitions throughout the day. In the afternoon, it draws a relaxed crowd, while in the evenings, it transforms to host trivia nights and live bands. (Jovana and Greg have an ear for music with deep cuts and up-and-coming artists.) Since opening, Nice Guys Beer & Pizza Lounge has garnered a reputation as a deep-rooted ally for the local LGBTQ population, hosting drag shows and PRIDE Cape Coral events. After one online reviewer used a slur to attack LGBTQ people, Jovana and Greg printed the review on T-shirts, which they sold and donated the proceeds to Pride SWFL. With Nice Guys, they wanted to create a welcoming space where all could feel at home. “It’s anybody and everyone,” Jovana says.