For thousands of diners who love traditional Italian food, Giovanni Italian Restaurant is a Berkeley classic.
But few know that Giovanni’s began as a sidewalk pizza café—Mr. Pizza, which Giovanni (Johnny) Schipani opened on Shattuck Avenue in 1961. Mr. Pizza could seat only 65, but it was popular none the less. After all, who could resist the sight of Johnny throwing pizzas in the window?
Looking to expand—the space and the menu—Giovanni bought an abandoned muffler shop a few doors away. Of course, turning it into a place where Giovanni’s mother, Savaria Schipani, could prepare the delicious recipes of southern Italy took patience and a lot of imagination.
Giovanni considered a number of innovative ideas for the internal décor including auditorium-style seating and fish swimming in aquarium floor tiles. Finally, he arrived at the floor plan that defines the restaurant today.
After two year’s of renovations, all traces of the muffler shop were gone. Café Giovanni opened in 1963, with seating for 190. The café featured an open kitchen—one of the first. And, unlike most restaurants of the day, the beautiful, hand-crafted bar stood prominently in the middle of the dining area, contributing to a casual, convivial atmosphere.
Over the years, Café Giovanni has undergone a series of major and minor remodels by different designers. A 1968 mural by Kenneth Wilkes and Donald Clever lines the walls of the back dining room and has been recently restored.
In 1987, Giovanni sold the business to his employees. Unfortunately, quality gradually declined until, in 2010, Giovanni, his wife, and two daughters reacquired the restaurant and began a new era of fine Italian food, lovingly prepared.