The fire that broke out at Giovanni last spring may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
In 2014, local developer Nathan George and entrepreneur Xin Jin began discussions on the sale of the restaurant with the Schipani family, the owners of Giovanni. It was a sentimental place for George, who started eating at the historic Italian restaurant with his wife shortly after moving to Berkeley.
“It was our go-to place,” he said. “When [the Schipanis] took it over [again], we became very close to them. We talked with them about their struggles with management, and we were always trying to get more people to eat there.”
George, Xin and the Schipanis went back and forth about the sale for about a year, but finally set a date to sit down with their lawyers to sort out details on April 24, 2015. The restaurant caught on fire the morning of April 23.
The fire slowed down the paperwork, and the deal wasn’t finalized until the end of 2015. Construction started soon afterward, but what was originally intended as a basic update turned into a much bigger project.
“The whole building needed to be upgraded,” said George. “It wasn’t ever intended to be a big project, but we’re more excited about the restaurant’s prospects now. It’s going to be a much better place than if we had just retained the old space.”
When the restaurant reopens this fall, it will have a new name, Gio’s Pizza and Bocce, a new bar, and a renewed focus on Sicilian pizza.
George and Xin decided this spring to bring in Farm League Design Management to help perfect the restaurant’s concept. “They’ve helped us re-think our plans and give us a fresh approach to how we’ll be operating, as well as the design element,” said George.
Bringing in Farm League, which has helped launch several successful East Bay food businesses like Tigerlily, Westbrae Biergarten and Drake’s Dealership, was more than just a business move. Like George, co-owner Joel DiGiorgio also has a personal connection with the restaurant.
“When I was a Cal Varsity rugby player, we used to have full team dinners at Giovanni’s before important matches,” said DiGiorgio. “Those were some great times with plenty of memories.”
DiGiorgio is also a third-generation Italian restaurateur. “I grew up running through the kitchens of Italian restaurants as both my father and grandfather owned and operated Italian restaurants in the East Bay,” he said. “I’m really thankful to be a part of this project.”
Given the sentimental attachment to the original restaurant, George and his team won’t be erasing the past. Instead, they are thinking about the renovation as a grandson would if he were to take over the family restaurant. The shortened name — Gio’s — is a nod to modernity while keeping the restaurant’s roots in place.
“Our goal is to highlight specific elements of the old Giovanni’s, but at the same time, we intend to create a contemporary concept that can both sustain, as well as positively impact, our city and the greater East Bay,” said DiGiorgio.
They will be retaining some of the restaurant’s original design elements, like the mural behind the bar and the red booths. And the pizza- and calzone-focused menu is a throwback to the restaurant’s original menu.
The front of Gio’s will be the most up-to-date, with a bar and a bocce court made with “top grade artificial putting green turf” that will open up onto the sidewalk. “We’re creating a very lively front area with a big bar … and the dining area will be in the back,” said George. “It’ll be kind of like you’re moving back in time as [you move through the restaurant]; modern up front, original Giovanni in the back.”
“Our intent is that our customers will hardly recognize the space when they first step inside, but as they progress through the venue, they will feel as though they’re walking through time as the original Giovanni’s slowly reemerges,” added DiGiorgio.
The front bar will be directed by DiGiorgio’s business partner Adam Stemmler (East Bay Spice Company, Tigerlily). Stemmler’s goal, said DiGiorgio, is to feature the Bay Area’s largest selection of vermouth and Amaro and will highlight aperitif and digestif flights. On the cocktail menu will be plays on classic Italian drinks like the Americano, Negroni and Aperol spritz, plus boozy Italian sodas on tap.
“The muse for this emphasis was the iconic mural behind the original Giovanni’s bar which features characters enjoying vermouths like Cinzano,” said DiGiorgio.
“It’ll be very Italian,” said George. “Very specific.”
This specificity is an important part of the restaurant’s design — Gio’s will hardly be the only Italian restaurant, nor the only Sicilian-focused restaurant, in the East Bay, let alone Berkeley. Just down the street in the Gourmet Ghetto, Agrodolce, a Sicilian restaurant from the owners of the Elmwood’s Trattoria La Siciliana, is set to open in the former Café Gratitude space later this summer.
“Unlike most Italian restaurants in the East Bay, we’re putting as much emphasis on the bar as we are on the kitchen,” said DiGiorgio. “Gio’s will also have a more relaxed feel and service model, as well as a more approachable price point. … In place of the traditional romance that most local Italian restaurants are known for, Gio’s will be more playful and energetic, with an emphasis on group dining and revelry.”
In that spirit, sports (soccer in particular) will “play a major role in the overall experience,” said DiGiorgio. The bar area will boast multiple televisions, and the bocce court will double as a picnic-style seating area for private buyouts, game days and movie nights. There also may or may not be a “secret bar” in the works. “We can’t confirm nor deny that at this time,” said DiGiorgio with a hint of secrecy.
Gio’s food menu is a little less ironed out, as DiGiorgio is still interviewing potential chefs for the gig. But he and George both said they plan for the menu to include a couple of pasta dishes and salads in addition to the pizza, plus Italian bar snacks like charcuterie and fried calamari.
DiGiorgio also added that he would like to incorporate “some eco- and health-conscious pasta dishes … to balance out the menu and offer families and health conscious-consumers an alternative to standard Italian fare.” In other words, ground turkey may be making an appearance in Bolognese in place of red meat, and there will likely be more of an emphasis on extra-virgin olive oil than butter and lard.
George said they’re just getting back on track with construction after a pause to make design changes. He hopes to open sometime this fall.
“We’re really excited to bring life back to that part of Shattuck.”
Gio’s Pizza and Bocce will be at 2420 Shattuck Ave. (between Channing and Haste streets), Berkeley.
Don’t miss any big East Bay food news! Subscribe to the free NOSH Weekly email.