Schenectady’s irascible but popular restaurateur who called himself the “Pizza King” died Sunday night at his business, causing shock and sorrow among his many loyal customers.
Djovalin “Jon” Camaj, 68, of Albany, had run his pizza shop in downtown Schenectady for 24 years. He bought it from his nephews when he immigrated here from Yugoslavia in 1988.
Police said his death was a suicide.
He ran the store with his wife and children, but he was the main personality. Relishing the “Soup Nazi” jokes from the classic television series “Seinfeld,” he called himself and his business the Pizza King and assumed the same gruff demeanor as the soup purveyor on TV.
But his pizza — and the many unusual flavors he concocted — were what drew in customers. Forget about mushroom or plain cheese; he offered shrimp, barbecue and chicken pizzas. Like most specialty pizza shops, the toppings changed hourly, but he regularly served up a chicken marsala pizza that he said was the customers’ favorite — even though it didn’t have tomato sauce.
His loyal customers followed him from State Street to Jay Street in 2008 when he was forced to move out of the valuable corner lot he had rented for many years. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority bought the State Street building, demolished it and sold it to developers who turned into new retail and office space.
At first Camaj fought the move. He organized hundreds of customers on the grounds that government should not hurt small business. But in the end, he agreed that Metroplex could buy him out of his lease for $40,000.
He was afraid that moving to Jay Street, across from City Hall, would be tantamount to exile. But a month after he opened, he had lines out the door at lunchtime. At that point, he declared he wouldn’t move back to State Street even if the building were given to him for free.
But his rebellious nature showed itself in darker ways too. In 2010, he was charged with building a roadblock to stop Buddhists from using the driveway to the former Jesuit Retreat House in Auriesville, which they had purchased. Two days later, he went back to the site, allegedly impersonating a county sheriff’s deputy as he tried again to stop vehicles from using the driveway.
The charges were pleaded down to disorderly conduct.
In Schenectady, Camaj was competitive with other pizzerias, but he was a good sport about the many other restaurants that sprang up in recent years. After running one of the only restaurants in the area for many years, he said he was delighted by the new vibrancy and was confident his customers would stay loyal.
When other restaurant owners said it was unfair for Metroplex to give out grants and low-interest loans to support new restaurants, Camaj went to Bombers Burrito Bar when it opened and tried the food for himself. Although his store and Bombers stayed open late, making them direct competitors, he said Bombers made good food and was happy to have the company — since Bombers didn’t make pizza.
He was proud of running an independent pizzeria. He hung signs challenging passersby to try his pizza and taste the difference between it and chain-store pizzas.
His wife said she doesn’t yet know what the family will do with the business. She was still making funeral arrangements Tuesday and said it was too soon to make decisions about the pizzeria.