To bring back Berkeley institution Giovanni, which was ravaged by a fire in 2015, a new group of owners have reverently resurrected the Italian restaurant as Gio’s Pizza & Bocce, open tonight at 2420 Shattuck Avenue. “We’re trying to be true to Giovanni, but still be true to what year it is,” says general manager Misao Cooper, who notes that Giovanni owner and namesake Giovanni Schipani, who is in his 80s, has already stopped by to give his blessing.
True to its new name, the updated, 4,000-square-foot Gio’s features a bocce ball court (first come, first served) right in the middle of the action. That’s new, although the game’s as old as the old country. Gio’s also maintains elements of its past life as the 1961-founded Giovanni, like a recognizable dark wood “boat room.” That and other features survived the major fire at Giovanni in 2015, which caused an estimated $100,000 in damage and put its married owners, Giovanni and his wife Anna Schipani, in a bind.
Eventually, they sold their space to a group of three UC Berkeley alums, Xin and Michele Jin and Nathan George. The trio of first-time restaurant owners joined forces with the more veteran Adam Stemmler and Joel DiGiorgio of Farm League Restaurant Group, a consulting group that helped launch East Bay hits like Drake’s Dealership and newcomer Arthur Mac’s Tap and Snack.
DiGiorgio has a strong emotional connection to Giovanni as well: As a rugby player at Cal, he and his teammates would gather for meals there before big home games. But that’s not unusual. “People already have a relationship with the building,” he says, and the challenge was to maintain that connection while moving forward into “the next 50 years.”
To achieve that goal, Giovanni’s original neon signs were restored and given pride of place in the dining room. Murals from the ’70s have also been maintained. Farm League enlisted EP Building and Bcooperative, who worked on projects like Drake’s, to remodel the space.
For food, also a blend of old and new, chef de cuisine Fred Oliveira (Boulevard, Sea Salt) has a menu including pizza, bruschetta, and linguini. For drinks, Gio’s hired bar manager Nick Stolte (East Bay Spice Company, another Farm League venture), who stocked up on vermouth and amaro. And tending bar, among others, is Anastasia Schipani, daughter of original owners Giovanni and Anna. “She’s our Marshawn Lynch,” DiGiorgio jokes.
Gio’s Pizza & Bocce will be open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Tonight’s grand opening will feature complimentary spritzes until 6 p.m. — a large component of the drinks menu, they’re mixed, kegged, and put on tap. Discounted food and drink will be available until close. In the future, during apertivo hour from 5 to 6 p.m., those spritzes will be $6.
“I was just in Europe, in France and Italy this summer, and spritzes are everywhere you go,” Cooper says. “It’s time for that here.”