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.
“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.
“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.
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