He brought Pizza Loft pizzas to Don Shula and Dan Marino, delivered a meatball to a dying Neil Rogers and paid homage to his Jewish heritage by creating matzo pizza and matzo lasagna for the Passover holiday. Last week Jeff Cohen called it a career after 42 years in the South Florida restaurant industry, shuttering Pizza Loft in Davie to make way for a Nova Southeastern University project that will be built on the University Drive site.
“It was a great run,” Cohen, 61, says. “I started Pizza Loft in Miami when I was 19. I’m looking forward to having a life.”
Pizza Loft closed on Sept. 1 after two decades in Davie, but its name, recipes and employees have found new life just up the road. That is because entrepreneur Jamie McDonnell bought the Pizza Loft brand, phone number and other proprietary rights from Cohen for the rechristened DelVecchio’s Pizza Loft in the Tower Shops of Davie, at 2060 S. University Drive.
When I stopped by the newly branded store on Sunday for a cheese slice ($3.18, tax included), I saw a basket of vintage Pizza Loft garlic rolls, baked fresh and studded with five types of garlic, on its way to a table. McDonnell says matzo pizza will be available during Passover and by special order (with one day’s notice) throughout the year.
“Pizza Loft has a phenomenal reputation and a phenomenal following, so it’s a no-brainer,” McDonnell says. “It’s been nothing but a home run for us.”
Cohen says he had bids from a handful of local pizzerias for the phone number and recipes, but McDonnell prevailed when he agreed to hire all Cohen’s employees — cooks, dishwashers, servers and even delivery people. He says many have been with him more than 20 years. “That sealed the deal,” Cohen says. “I got some money, and they got to have jobs.”
McDonnell, who owns DelVecchio pizzerias in Davie, Plantation and Weston, says he paid Cohen $90,000 for the Pizza Loft rights. “Some people thought I was crazy, but we doubled our sales the first four days at the Davie store.”
“Our phone still rings off the hook,” Cohen says.
Cohen has been a colorful character through the years, well-known to “Neilies,” the legion of fans of late South Florida radio icon Neil Rogers. Rogers met Cohen and became a fan of his food at the original Pizza Loft, on Flagler Street in Miami. Rogers would needle Cohen on-air through the decades, calling him “Ponytail Jeff” and making fun of Cohen’s painted fingernails.
“Neil requested a Pizza Loft meatball when he was in hospice and it was my honor to make that wish come true,” Cohen wrote in a post last week on a Facebook group named The Neil Rogers Chronics. Rogers died in 2010. “In person he was the nicest, most mild-mannered guy,” Cohen says. “He put me and Pizza Loft on the map.”
Cohen relocated from Miami to Davie in 1996, after a fire destroyed his original location. He says University of Miami football coaches used to drop by the Flagler Street restaurant because it was far enough from campus for them to eat without being recognized or bothered. When former offensive coordinator Gary Stevens went to the Dolphins to work for Shula, Cohen began delivering pizzas and food to the Dolphins at their old training site at St. Thomas University in Miami.
When hunting for a new location, Cohen chose Davie partly because the Dolphins’ new training facility was nearby at Nova Southeastern. He has delivered pizzas to coaches for late-night film sessions and the team when it returns from road games under every coaching regime except one — the dour Nick Saban. He says former Dolphins executive Bill Parcells was a regular customer, so much that Cohen arrived at the restaurant one day to find a cable TV installer putting in a jack at Table 77, Parcells’ regular table. “He loved watching golf and the horses,” Cohen says.
Cohen says he hit it off with the latest head coach, Adam Gase, who would order a pepperoni pizza every weeknight at 9 p.m. during his rookie 2016 season. Cohen says his contract with McDonnell stipulates that a free pepperoni pizza must be delivered to Gase every weeknight between 9-9:30 p.m. during football season.
Cohen says he was bought out of his lease with nine years left at Pizza Loft’s home at 3514 S. University Drive. He knew his days were numbered when NSU wanted the entire shopping center to develop an academic village and medical center. Another longtime restaurant in the plaza, Geronimo’s Grill, will relocate to 5810 S. University Drive.
Cohen says he looks forward to retirement, but on Tuesday he took care of one last piece of business from his restaurant days: He had surgery to repair a clogged heart artery. His son Jonathan reported by text that “the surgery was a success and my dad is now the proud owner of two stents.”
“All those pizzas and all those years of eating, it’s not easy on the body,” Cohen said before the surgery. “The restaurant business is a young person’s game.”