A beloved downtown Berkeley haunt is reinvigorated with the grand opening of Gio’s Pizza & Bocce.
After a complete overhaul of the long-beloved Giovanni Bar & Grill in downtown Berkeley, Gio’s Pizza & Bocce has transformed the once dark, cavernous space into a cool, golden-hued hangout with an indoor bocce court, an obsession with Italian appertivi, and a menu of solid pastas and salads. We visited the newly christened spot last week during Gio’s soft opening and tried most of the dishes on the limited menu (which will expand this week at the grand opening today, Wednesday, August 23).
The huge space was beautifully designed by Farm League Design Management, who nailed just the right shade of orange for the mid-century Modern look of the banquettes and wisely retained the original murals along the back wall and neon lights above the kitchen announcing “PIZZA CALZONE.” Adam Stemmler, from the design firm, manages all restaurant operations, and Frederico Oliveira, formerly of La Mar Cebicheria and Boulevard in San Francisco, is the chef de cuisine.
The brilliance of the new space, opened by locals Xin and Michele Jin and developer Nathan George, and what the eye is continually drawn to, is the indoor bocce court, where you can let your kids roam and play while you peruse the beverage list. Above the astro-turf-lined court are several big TVs playing black-and-white Italian gangster movies. The whole deal almost fell apart during the pair’s negotiations to buy the place from longtime owners, the Schipani family, when a fire broke out and did enough damage to make the renovation a considerably more extensive proposition. But it worked out nearly two years later, as the restaurant opened its doors to guests last week.
The drinks menu leads with six classic apertifs, from the sweet Cocchi Americano vermouth to the bitterish digestif Carpano Punt e Mes, also available in flights of three (stick with sweet or bitter or mix it up). We enjoyed a refreshing spritz of watermelon and mint with another digestif, Carpano Bianco, and a splash of Mezcal. The classic Venetian aperol spritz (with soda water and prosecco) is also available.
We ordered two appetizers, two salads, two pastas, two little pizzas and one main dish to share among six, and there was ample food to go around. Fried calamari was light and crispy, served with lemon aioli and sprinkled with fried parsley. We also tried the spicy meatballs, a little bowl of tender beef and pork meatballs with bread and grana Padano, swimming in a deliciously sweet, chile-inflected tomato sauce. When the meatballs were gone, we saved the sauce for dipping the pizza crusts that were to come later.
Salads and pastas were the highlight of the meal. A generous caprese salad with perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes and room-temperature burrata (much preferable to straight out of the fridge) was dressed with olive oil and a splash of sweet balsamic vinegar reduction. And the equally attractive yellow beet salad was composed of thin coins of beets on the bottom and a mound of baby arugula on top, tossed in a pleasingly tart lemon vinaigrette.
Our two pasta selections were winners, according to kids and adults alike. A study in both contrast and simplicity, the linguine marinara was tossed with the same sauce as the meatballs, without the chiles, while the fettucine Alfredo (now an American classic more than an Italian one) was subtly complex, creamy, egg-laden, and with hints of spices (perhaps nutmeg?). Both were served al dente.
The pizza genre is a bit of a mystery. Billed as “single Sicilian-style,” these little flatbreads are just the right size for kids and have quality ingredients. But they’re rather doughy, not crisp, something to be aware of if you prefer thin and crispy pizza. Both the Margherita with pepperoni added and the fungi & sausage are quite cheesy, the former with red sauce and the latter with a cream-based sauce with a sprinkle of thyme.
There was one entrée special, and the carnivores among us shared it: medium-rare hanger steak with fingerling potatoes and a baby arugula salad, paired with the house red wine (a Sierra Foothills red blend) for $5.
The one dessert on the menu offered something for everyone. Large enough for all six of us to snag a few bites, the polenta cake was topped with ricotta cream, summer fruit, and a surprising and wonderful garnish of kettle corn.
Pro tip: If you peak behind the mystery door made of olive oil cans (which doubles as an art piece on view for guests in the main dining room), you’ll find a little museum of the old Giovanni’s space, a dimly lit private dining area with movies, a loungey feel, and full menu service.