Tonight: Jazz for 50 years of Berkeley eatery Giovanni

John Schott: playing "straight ahead" jazz with a trio from 7-9 pm tonight to celebrate Giovanni's 50th anniversary. Photo: Karen Salomon

John Schott doesn’t make a habit of approaching neighborhood eateries for gigs. But the capaciously creative Berkeley guitarist couldn’t resist reaching out to the owners of Giovanni, one of the oldest continually operating restaurants in town, when he stopped by for dinner with his family one night and heard Miles Davis playing on the house sound system. A Berkeley resident since 1988, Schott had eaten at the restaurant before, but that was when it wasn’t owned by the original Schipani family.

Giovanni’s brother Billy Schipani and his sister Fanny Schipani standing in front of Mr.Pizza, where it all started in 1961. Photo: Giovanni

“I live around the corner and last year I walked by and saw them remodeling,” says Schott, who performs at Giovanni tonight with bassist John Wiitala and drummer John Hanes. “I struck up a conversation with one of the Schipani daughters and heard they had repurchased it. It’s a huge place with a great feel that reminds me of Italian restaurants I went to as a kid.”

For the Schipani family, the decision to rescue Giovanni was a matter of head and heart. Founded as Mr. Pizza in 1961 by Giovanni (Johnny) Schipani, the child of Italian immigrants, the restaurant took on the family name in 1963 when it moved down the block to its present Shattuck Avenue location. Once home to a muffler shop, the large, lovingly designed space could seat nearly 200 and featured an open kitchen and handcrafted bar in the middle of the dining area.

For years it was a true family operation with three Schipani brothers running the popular restaurant, their mother Savaria Schipani preparing southern Italian cuisine, and Giovanni’s teenage daughters Anastasia and Sara helping out after school. “I worked at the restaurant as a teenager until 15,” Anastasia recalls. “We were at the restaurant every day, so we learned a lot of different aspects of running a restaurant.”

In 1987, Giovanni and his wife Anna sold the business to several employees, and it gradually lost its loyal following. When they were ready to call it quits last year, the Schipani family was faced with a dilemma. Giovanni had bought the building in the late 1960s, and if he let the restaurant close he was faced with finding a tenant in a soft market. And the family hated the idea of someone transforming a space they had poured so much of themselves into.

Giovanni’s daughter, Anastasia serving long time regular, Julio Jefferson. Photo: Giovanni

“We didn’t like the idea of it being gutted and converted into something else,” Anastasia says. “My father put a lot of heart and creativity into it. We weren’t positive we’d find a tenant who would see the charm, so we got inspired to revive the restaurant. It was a family decision, between my father, who’s 80, and my sister and me. He’s the host. He’s here every day. Sara and I are both managing, and we fill in waiting tables, tending the bar, whenever it’s needed.”

For Schott, the Italian family feel is a big part of the charm. He notes that his German Jewish father was born in Milan and still speaks fluent Italian. Over the years he’s played everything from ragtime and blues to post-modern bebop with Junk Genius and fractured funk with Grammy-nominated TJ Kirk. For his gig tonight, he’s focusing on straight ahead jazz with a supple trio from 7-9 p.m, at Giovanni, 2420 Shattuck Avenue.

“It really sounds good in this big room,” Schott says. “We’re donating our playing to call attention to the restaurant and celebrate its 50th anniversary. There are hard times out there, and people with restaurants need help just like musicians.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • JW

    About 30 years ago my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Giovanni’s. We were seated by the kitchen.  After waiting for at least 15 minutes to be approached by a waiter or waitress, we left, never to return again.  I always thought it was the red plaid pants my date was wearing, but who can say?

  • the deer!

    John is a super guitarist. Sweet man too.

  • Anonymous

    This gig is at 2420 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. http://originalgiovanni.com/   John Schott is a totally awesome musician and all around good guy! And the guys he plays with are great too!  http://www.johnschott.com/

  • Guest

    The recent Giovanni’s really awful: prices went up, taste went to hell. I hope these original owners are newer new owners. Giovanni’s used to be one of my favorite Berkeley restaurants. I don’t think I can forgive the new owners for the “handmade” fettucini carbonara with some foul tasting meat instead of ham/bacon.

    Please bring back butter for the focaccia, the tasty veggies (wok?), and non-italian options like the lime butter catfish. I’m not sure if the drink menu is still the same, but I used to enjoy getting a “hot apple pie” cocktail with the gnocchi.

    I love the cavernous space in Giovanni’s, and I hope the restaurant survives. I appreciate a well-placed news article can help with that. However, I truly hope that some improved quality was in place first. That way the people who check out Giovanni’s after reading this article might become repeat customers.

  • Anonymous

    What a great show! The food was fantastic too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1303040241 Heather Wood

    Missed the show, unfortunately, but hope that the food has made a major improvement over the last 20 years…. my but it had gone completely foul, but there is hope of redemption; a resurrection of good Southern Italian Food that was served back in the ’70′s and which was was horrible lost through the late ’80′s plus and that is what lost my business… but I want to come back, so please be better?

  • Thinkitover

    To bad the Bay Area doesn’t have a letter system like they do in so.cal has where the restaurant has to display a sign( rated A to F)  displaying what the health dept gave them on the day of their review and  by law HAVE to show it in the front door or window so they public can know how clean the place is before even entering. It really makes a difference.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to see the letters in the window too!  However, Berkeley inspection reports are online:
    http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/environmentalhealth/inspections.asp
    San Francisco reports are also online:
    http://dph-extranet2.sfdph.org:7777/pls/eeop_htmldb/f?p=132:1:1761271531796656

  • Thinkitover

    The reports online defiantly help, but most shady restaurant owners most people who come to their establishment are first time customers so they don’t really care, but with a letter system they very much do as nothing turns people away quicker from your eatery then a big “B” or “C” posted on the front door. It’s the one thing So.Cali has done right.

     

  • libraterian

    Giovanni’s occupies a huge place in my Berkeley…

    The only restaurant dinner I ever bought my Dad was at Giovanni’s when it was still south of Haste. The walls and ceiling were dark blue and decorated with fish nets and green glass floats. I was living with my sister and working the summer cleaning and painting apts. saving to buy a car. My Dad said it was a great place. I felt very adult.

    After moving to Berkeley to attend Cal, my great buddy Bill and I had an every Sunday afternoon ritual of “one large mushroom, sausage and olive pizza and two beers, Please.” Our favorite table was at the front along the wall. There was a opera poster above the table for “Tosca”. Bill loved “Tosca” and introduced this dubious and somewhat reluctant farm boy to opera. It’s been an enduring pleasure.

    My first date with my first wife was over pizza at Giovanni’s; The duce table on the inside of the fireplace. When things were going well, Giovanni’s and that table were our celebration place.

    Years and one wife later, Giovanni’s saved the day when my four year old’s birthday party was rained out at La Loma Park. Giovanni’s let us have the small room at the back that they sometimes use for parties. A few balloons, some streamers, lots of pizza made a great party. And when Cinderella arrived in full costume ( and completely dry) the look on our daughter’s face was indeed, priceless.

    Thank You, Giovanni’s.