By Ted Friedman
Giovanni Schipani, 81, has been fighting the past two years to save the restaurant he launched in 1961. Now, according to Anna Schipani, 63, the bookkeeper at Giovanni, “we could be boarded-up at the end of the month if we don’t pay back taxes to IRS.”
Giovanni, at 2420 Shattuck Ave., is “probably” the oldest restaurant on Shattuck, according to Steve Finacom, vice president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Schipani, known as Johnny to friends, had been wildly successful in Berkeley’s flourishing south side restaurant scene, earning enough money from his first restaurant, Mr. Pizza, to buy a muffler shop and convert it to an upscale Italian family restaurant seating 200.
At one time Schipani was flying high in his own Cessna, fulfilling his lifelong dream to be a pilot. He owned racehorses. When he offered pizzas for a dollar a piece in 1961, he made $85,000 in silver dollars in a less than a month.
“Who wouldn’t pay a dollar for a pizza?” Schipani said of the promotion.
In 1987 Schipani sold the restaurant, but not the building it occupied, for $1.3 million, moving to San Francisco where he opened two other restaurants, which eventually failed, he said.
In 2010, after 23 years, the purchaser of Giovanni could no longer pay rent on the building, even after Schipani reduced the rent by $5,000, he said. After three months of receiving no payments, Schipani evicted the owners.
The $1.3 million gone, Anna and Johnny Schipani gave up a condo in San Francisco and moved in with relatives in the East Bay. “Things didn’t go well. It was cramped, and we moved to a student building near the restaurant,” Anna said.
The restaurant was in a shambles, according to Anna. The plumbing had been destroyed, extensive repairs were needed, and the famous murals that gave the restaurant its distinctive look had to be restored. The Schipanis also had to reassemble a 20-person staff to get the restaurant back in operation. Luckily, the family had friends, whom Anna calls “angels” who worked to restore the restaurant at below-market rates.
“When we first entered our store, we were heartbroken,” said Anna. “Our first six months were the toughest. Our phone was gone. When customers called, the message said we’d closed. We still get customers who tell us they thought we were closed. It was tough.”
After a two-year battle to regain former customers and to attract new ones, Anna says business is up, but “if we don’t work something out with the Internal Revenue Service, they will foreclose at the end of the month.”
“Johnny spent heavily restoring Giovanni, and put off paying taxes,” Anna said. This decision could come back to bite Giovann, “if we can’t work something out with the IRS,” she said.
One thing Giovanni is doing right is the food. The previous owner had discontinued many of the restaurant’s specialties and was using dried spices. “Dried spices. Can you imagine, for Italian food?” said Anna.
In its early days, Giovanni featured original recipes from the Schipani family, mostly from Johnny’s mother, Saveria, an immigrant from Calabria in southern Italy. She had carried home-cooked southern Italian fare to Mr. Pizza, and later to Giovanni, where she cooked in the kitchen in the mornings for several years. She died in 1979.
When the Schipanis took back control of the restaurant in 2010, all of those recipes had been lost. Fortunately, a returning 43-year employee, Juan Sanchez, saved the restaurant’s authenticity. He had memorized the recipes. Sanchez began at Giovanni as a 16-year-old bus boy and now manages the kitchen.
“Everything now is fresh and our original rustic, old family-style recipes are back, thanks to Juan,” said Anna. Linguine is made fresh daily at the restaurant, as is Giovanni’s own baked, herb bread and pizza dough. The pizza has gotten some rave reviews on Yelp.
“We don’t divulge our cheese pizza topping combination,” said Anna. “But we use three different cheeses.”
The Schipanis have also enhanced their drinks menu. Local bartender Anthony Keels, a mixologist at Gather, updated the bar menu, adding new drinks like The Honcho, with tequila, green chartreuse, luxardo, lime, aperol, and the Shattuck Fizz, made with gin, St. Germain, oregano, grapefruit, honey syrup, and lemon. Giovanni’s offers double happy hours, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 11 p.m., with discounted drink and food. (The battered calamari, light and deep-fried, is on the menu.)
“We are starting to turn the corner to profitability,” said Anastasia Schipani, Johnny and Anna’s daughter. An award-winning textile artist, Anastasia was well on her way to a career in textile arts when she put her career on hold to manage the family business.
Sarah, the youngest daughter, gave up being what she called a “tennis-bum” to work at the restaurant. “I needed a change, anyway,” she said.
The sisters fill in at other jobs in the restaurant, but Anastasia is manager, calling it a demanding job. Anna is hostess-at-large, who likes to narrate the family stories to old customers, “who tell us old family stories we told them a half-century ago, and had forgotten,” she laughs.
On most nights you will be greeted by Giovanni/Johnny, himself, who will escort you to your table. If you ask him about the old days of the business, he may have a story or two. Ask him about the Chicago gangsters, who fascinated him as a boy growing up in Gary, Ind., near gangster-dominated Chicago nearly a century ago.
Although Giovanni regularly presents local musicians (jazz on Tuesdays), Anna says Giovanni is all about the food. Chef Alex Sanchez (no relation to Juan) says it’s about “food prepared with love.”
But it’s really all about the stories.
Giovanni is participating in Berkeley Restaurant Week, which runs through Sunday Jan. 20. Giovanni’s is offering a three-course, $30 Prix Fixe Menu. Entrée selections include Housemade Gnocchi Alfredo with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, Seafood and saffron risotto, or Osso Bucco with polenta and root vegetables, served with house made focaccia.
Ted Friedman writes for the ‘Berkeley Daily Planet’, the ‘Daily Californian,’ and the ‘Berkeley Reporter.’ Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @berkboy.