Giovanni’s last stand: Family rallies to save restaurant

Giovanni's, the oldest restaurant on Shattuck Avenue, may have to close at the end of the month because of taxes owed to the IRS. The poster announcing a new movie inadvertently telegraphs the restaurant's situation. Photo: Ten Friedman

Giovanni, probably the oldest restaurant on Shattuck Avenue, may have to close at the end of the month because of taxes owed to the IRS. The poster announcing a new movie inadvertently telegraphs the restaurant’s situation. Photo: Ted Friedman

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.

The Schipani family: Anna, Johnny, Sarah, and Anastasia. Photo: Ted Friedman

The Schipani family: Anna, Johnny, Sarah, and Anastasia. Photo: Ted Friedman

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.

Giovanni "Johnny" Schipani installed an open kitchen when he launched the restaurant in 1962. It was one of the first open kitchens in the Bay Area. Photo: Ted Friedman

Giovanni “Johnny” Schipani installed an open kitchen when he launched the restaurant in 1962, one of the first in the Bay Area. Photo: Ted Friedman

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 restored DOn Clever's murals, which adorn the walls of the restaurant. Photo: Ted Friedman

The Schipanis restored Don Clever’s murals which adorn the walls of the restaurant. Photo: Ted Friedman

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.

The facade of Giovanni's. Photo: Ted Friedman

Giovanni is one of many restaurants participating in Berkeley’s Restaurant Week. Photo: Ted Friedman

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  or follow him on Twitter @berkboy.

For more East Bay food news, read Berkeleyside Nosh. Follow Berkeleyside NOSH on Twitter and on Facebook.  

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  • Anon

    The IRS should work something out. U know what I hate about government? The reason they don’t go after the Madoffs, Goldman Sachs, venture capital kings, etc. is because those people are extremely smart and for the most part, legal (except for Madoff, of course). So where does the IRS go to pay its government employees, Medicare, Medicaid, you name it? the easiest target…small mom and pop shops who are not sophisticated and trying their best. These “back taxes” are just taxes that the Giovanni family owes to same faceless entity. They lived their lives the hard way and earned every penny. IRS, go away…

  • Completely_Serious

    You gotta pay your taxes. They don’t mess around.

  • phhht

    Forty-odd years ago, my sweetie and I were ejected from Giovanni’s for the effrontery of playing chess in the empty dining room.

    I’ve never been back.

  • EarlyMorningCoffee

    The photos for this article seem oddly / overly artistic.

  • BHS verteran

    Save Giovanni’s! I’ve had way better times there than at the Berkeley main post office and look at all the support it gets?!

  • TN

    If the owners weren’t making a profit, they wouldn’t owe any federal income taxes on this business.

    The tax obligations are likely the tax withholdings and social security taxes to be paid on behalf of the employees. By not forwarding these withholdings, the owners put their employees in an untenable situation since the employees would still be liable for the taxes even though they thought they had already paid it.

  • Anon

    Putting the onus of social security taxes on small employers is burdensome…small mom and pops should not be put through a wringer even on social security taxes. yes, the owners clearly were making a profit. that’s great! it’s better than a story of about employers barely making it. But that’s what’s wrong with this system. our form of government is really based on taxes paid by these local mom and pop small or larger medium sized businesses…no matter how much people talk about sophisticated tax shelters that Apple or Google or Goldman Sachs have, the entire Medicare and Social Security system would collapse without these tiny employers. And you know why that’s burdensome? Telling an old Italian family that they are “putting their employees” in an untenable position ignores the fact that we, the public, are putting the Giovannis in an untenable position…They have to pay taxes NOW or close. Otherwise, we start wagging our finger at them and boycott their restaurant, all while ignoring the fact that we can’t capture the big corporate dragons by the tail and make them pay.

    the best solution? employees pay their own social security taxes. Fewer taxes on small and medium sized businesses. Let these people make it.

  • anon y mouse

    I don’t know if this was intentional, but the article doesn’t paint the family in a good light at all. He had a successful business and squandered all the money? They had amazing “family recipes” that they didn’t even keep records of? His daughter is a self described “tennis-bum”? This doesn’t make me want to give them my money at all.

  • JWong

    Boo-hoo. About 30 years ago, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were seated near the kitchen. After 20 minutes when no one came over to take our orders, we got up and left, never to return.

  • TN

    I must not have been very clear in what I wrote. I meant that the owners were not making money. They were losing money. Hence, they likely owed no income taxes for their business.

    Like all employers, the owners withheld a portion of their employees’ hard earned wages to pay their employees’ own tax obligations. If these funds belonging to the employees are not forwarded to the IRS, the employees lose. They are still liable for paying their own taxes. In other words they might end up paying twice, though the government gets paid only once.

    In a money losing business, federal tax liabilities are most likely these withholdings.

  • berkopinionator

    Time for an offer to compromise.

  • Tanja

    oooh tue night for the jazz and i want the honcho AND a shattuck fizz. love the “overly artistic” photos.

  • Joe

    I don’t believe that is correct. If an employer withholds and does not remit, then the employer is responsible not the employee. But if the employer does not withhold, only then is the employee still liable

  • serkes

    Restaurant Venezia … and Giovanni’s … in the same week?

  • Foodie-tang

    No wonder they can’t make a profit! Their tables – intended for food service – are being squatted by chess players!

  • Foodie-tang

    I’ve eaten here for years. Nice family and fantastic food. I hope they turn it around. Too many good old places being hurt by the economy right now. I bet the price of the quality ingredients they use just creeped up on them. Anyone notice the 20% or so rise in groceries? They could raise their prices and I wouldn’t care (vs shrinking portions like all the rest). Always been a fair price with easily better quality. I just wish I knew what the specials were in advance. They have several dishes that, had I advanced knowledge they were on the menu that night I would change plans to enjoy.

  • aoxomoxoa

    Wow, you sure know how to hold a grudge.

  • aoxomoxoa

    How easily you sneer at the misfortunes of others. Holding a grudge for 30 years, in exchange for a 20 minute inconvenience, must make you feel very special. Who are you people anyway?

  • Zemi

    This is a wonderful place! We used to go here when I was a little girl… I am all in favor of keeping the old Berkeley restaurants going…or else soon downtown Berkeley will just be full of chains and big-boxes. It is a real piece of Berkeley history. Also, they give you a FULL meal; real value for your money.

  • Sally

    All I know is I have to pay my taxes or else so should they!!!

  • sally

    There is no compromise !!! IRS wants their money death and taxes

  • John Reichel

    In the Sixties I loved the glass grapes in the light fixtures. It was one of our favorite family restaurants. I heard it went downhill for a while and now I know why. I’ll have to get back over there! Yum.

  • elp

    John – It suffered a fairly devastating fire yesterday.