Caffe Venezia, a Berkeley institution: 1980-2013

Venezia Dining Room
The roots of Caffe Venezia, with its distinctive decor, go back to 1978 when John and Lois Solomon opened a natural foods taqueria in Berkeley

By Allison Etchison

Caffe Venezia, a Berkeley staple for over three decades, will be closing in the early part of the year (as reported by Berkeleyside in January). The restaurant will remain open for a few more months to celebrate 33 years of serving the Berkeley community and its menu will take a nostalgia trip and including some classics to mark the occasion. On offer will be some perennial favorites such as Pollo Affumicato, Linguine Con Carciofi, Chicken Cannelloni, Rustica and Puttanesca, as well as standbys Malfatti con Funghi and Spaghetti Carbonara.

The roots of Caffe Venezia go back to 1978 when John and Lois Solomon, best known for their catering at the Renaissance Faires and their food cart on Telegraph Ave in the early 1970s, approached Jeff Wizig and Stacy Metcalf with their idea to open a natural foods taqueria in Berkeley. (Solomon was also the inspiration behind the “How Berkeley Can You Be Parade” that marched along University once a year for 13 years, until it was canceled in 2009.)

Ay Caramba, on the corner of University and Grove (now MLK Way), was an instant success. Ads promoting the eatery proclaimed it to be “Where the chefs from Chez Panisse go for a quick bite,” and even James Beard and Marion Cunningham showed up one day for lunch, sent there by Alice Waters.


Venezia2
Murals, hanging laundry and a central fountain, now over 6 feet tall, grace the Caffe Venezia dining room

With Ay Caramba thriving, John and Lois traveled to Northern Italy, where they discovered fresh pasta. Inspired, they returned with the idea for the original Caffe Venezia. Renting the space next door, John took a sledgehammer and broke through the wall into a defunct laundry. A few months later, in 1980, Caffe Venezia opened, with 44 seats surrounding a central fountain. Within a few weeks, it was packing in up to 200 diners a night. The restaurant had the feel of an outdoor courtyard in Venice, although its name came from the ‘Venezia’ brand pasta machine displayed in the open kitchen window.

In 1982, John was itching open another restaurant. The economy was booming, and Chef Janice Chapler (original Caffe Chef and current owner of the Westside Café) had more ideas than could fit on the small pasta menu. Ristorante Venezia opened directly across the street on University Ave., complete with 85 seats, an Italian Wine Bar and mesquite grill. Opera nights were launched. The first singers to perform were Rinde Eckert and John Duykers, who sang, literally, for their supper. Tuesday Night Opera soon became a fixture.

Lunch at Caffe Venzia
Lunch on the counter at Caffe Venezia on University Avenue

In 1992, the Ristorante’s rent doubled. Ever the entrepreneurs, the Solomons succeeded in purchasing a large brick building one block west at 1799 University Ave. Creative juices flowing, John and Lois scaled up the courtyard theme. Murals, hanging laundry and a central fountain, now over 6 feet tall, graced the dining room. Painter Silvio Ronzone worked night and day to create beautiful murals that have stood the test of time. The menu reflected the best of the Caffe and Ristorante.

Even in the sketchy economy, the restaurant was serving 200-350 meals a night. The reinvented Caffe has now been a Berkeley fixture and neighborhood staple for over 20 years.

In 2004, John and Lois handed the restaurant over to Jeff Wizig, Roger Feuer and Chef Cindy Deetz. In 2012, current owners Jeff and Roger, with John and Lois’ help, remodeled the dining room, expanded the bar and added a pizza oven.

Caffe Venezia has been home to many long-serving employees, some of whom have been part of the Venezia Family for over two decades. In the 80s and 90s, John and Lois sponsored trips to Italy with chefs, managers and other staff, which helped to bring authenticity to the menu and atmosphere of the restaurant.

Jeff, Roger and the staff of Caffe Venezia invite everyone to come in and enjoy Venezia’s classic fare, and help them mark the end of an era. Special events are being planned, including a ‘Farewell to Venezia Opera Night.’ Check Caffe Venezia’s Facebook page for details. Caffe Venezia is at 1799 University Avenue.

Allison Etchison has worked at Caffe Venezia for several years.

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