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Restaurants & Bars 4

Gem Alert! - Giovanni’s – Southern Italian from Calabria

Krys | Mar 6, 200511:28 PM

The house made sausage recipe has been passed down for generations in Giovanni’s family. He says that in the town of Calabria, each family has its own unique recipe and a taste of the sausage will tell you who made it. There’s a tweaking in the amount of anise, for example. The recipes are closely guarded secrets.

Giovanni is trying out a Saturday BBQ where chicken and his sausages are grilled outdoors. I had the hot sausage with peppers and onions on Maggiora Baking Company’s Sour Dough roll. I could have added some marinara sauce, but I’m a purist about sausage and peppers.

The sausages are dense and meaty. The spicy sausage is hot without being overwhelming. The mild is very meaty and both have a snappy casing. Giovanni said that in Calabria, sausage making was done once a year when families killed a pig. Sausages were made to preserve the meat in the days before refrigeration. He talked about some of the other ways the pig was preserved for the coming year. The restaurant has only been open 8 months and it is selling about 125 pounds of sausage a week.

The sandwich comes with chili and a choice of cole slaw, potato salad or macaroni salad. Everything is house made.

I wasn’t in the mood for chili, especially with an Italian sausage sandwich and they graciously gave me the potato cabbage soup. This was very like a Polish soup with a broth and lots of cabbage, some potatoes, a few slices of carrots and bits of bacon. Although I think it was an Italian bacon-like meat because it tasted better than bacon.

When I opened the cole slaw, I thought, ooh … that looks nice. It was in a creamy sauce with a touch of sour cream and coarse chopped green cabbage. The bottle of Bolla Valpolicella, the house wine, went very well with the sausage.

While waiting today for the Italian Wine Tasting, I had lunch choosing the lasagna which is made in the style of the Calabria region. It is delicate lasagna with ground hard cooked eggs mixed into the ricotta. If the menu had not mentioned hard cooked eggs, I never would have noticed them. The eggs give the lasagna a rich flavor, but lighten the texture. There were tiny meat balls in the lasagna, about the size garbanzos. Giovanni said the marinara is unique to Southern Italy when I said in noticed a little tang to it. Very nice.

You can order a la carte or the dinner. I chose the dinner and it started with a small dish of antipasti. They were vegetables marinated in balsamic vinegar and oil with oregano and chopped garlic. Veggies included broccoli, cauliflower, red onions, black olives, green olives, and celery. I was sorry I turned down the roll with dinner because I would have sopped up every bit of that garlicky oil and balsamic vinegar.

The minestrone was without beans or pasta. The starch was potatoes with green beans, carrots, celery, onion and tomato in a tomato based broth. Again, another good soup.

The four pieces of garlic bread that came with the lasagna looked unimpressive, but oh my goodness. It was nicely toasted and crunchy and very buttery and garlicky. Some parsley was sprinkled on top.

I didn’t get dessert and only one is made in house by the Giovanni’s wife. The other desserts ARE FLOWN IN FROM ITALY!!! I am looking forward to trying the ricotta cake in the future. The spumoni is local and not house made, but Mrs. Giovanni says it is very good.

On Tuesday nights it is Italian night where you can get a 6 – 7 course meal paired with Italian wine for $35. There were a number of fishes planned for this week including salmon and tilapia. Dinner starts around 6 pm and guess where I’m eating Tuesday night. If it is as good as the other food, this might have potential for a chow down.

There are pizzas and panzerotti, a Southern Italian version of Calzone filled with Giovanni’s Italian sausage, onion, mushroom, black olives, and mozzarella cheese. At lunch, pizza is offered by the slice.

They also sell sandwiches and salads. You can choose to have your sandwich on focaccia. There is a deli case with some domestic and some imported meats and cheeses. You can buy wet or dry bacala. A large cooler holds sodas and beers.

There is a small selection of grocery items. There are loaves of Maggiora Italian bread and bakery items including bread sticks. There are a few Italian cookies and candies. The pasta selection includes tin cans of DeCecco spaghetti. I am buying that next time. It looks so cool. There are other such items including cans of Flott Tuna in olive oil, pannetone and a big glass jar of dried Italian mushrooms.

The décor is deli as well with Formica tables and sturdy white folding chairs. There is a counter with comfy bar seats spanning the window where you can watch the traffic on San Pablo Avenue. The color scheme is muted yellows and olive green. A few items decorate the walls – two wooden pizza paddles, a map of Calabria, an Italian flag, and a picture of the Roman coliseum. A CD of Andrea Bocelli provided the music during my lunch.

Grape vines with grapes that light up span the front wall. I am now convinced that to open a restaurant in the town of Pinole, you are required to string lights. There is not one, NOT ONE, business in town without the lights. At night, the store windows are framed in white lights.

The special wine tasting event today ($20) was nice with three Italian whites, six Italian reds and a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Sublime. Giovanni’s won my heart the first time I walked in and saw bottles of Piper-Heidsieck cooling in the deli case. It is one of my favorite champagnes. To me it is an upscale spumante, a little sweeter than most of the Heidsieck champagnes.

There was a huge platter of Giovanni’s mild sausage, cheese and bread at the tasting. It was a really pleasant event with town’s people chatting while tasting wine. Giovanni would return to the kitchen from time to time where you could seem him stirring the huge pots of marinara sauce with a large wooden spoon … with a handle the length of an arm.

I actually had a discussion with one Italian woman about timpano. Outside of Chowhound, I’ve never had a discussion about timpano before. We also talked about Southern Italian cuisine where some of the lasagnas have whole hard cooked eggs in them.

The wine tasting reps were really knowledgeable and handed out a very nice book about the wines of the Antinori Wine Producers. I even got some recommendations for vineyards to visit the next time I’m in Italy.

I liked the Peppoli Chianti best which is a blend of Sangiovese with a bit of Merlot and aged in oak vats for eight months. I bought that plus one of the Bolla wines, the pinot grigio. This event had something to do with the town of Pinole. The wine company wanted to present some of the better wines, but was told to keep the selection to affordable bottles averaging about $10 (Heidsieck excepted. That was Giovanni’s personal contribution).

I am not aware of any other restaurants in the area serving Southern Italian food. This is not A16, folks. This is food prepared the same way for generations as you would find it if you visited Italy. As the menu says “Giovanni grew up and learned to cook in the Calabria region of Italy (near the toe of the boot). San Giovanni in Fiore to be exact. The food from this region is referred to as peasant food. But make no mistake, this food is as rich in flavor as it is in history and tradition”.

With my Polish peasant ancestry, I can truly appreciate this food of similar humble Italian origin. Besides, you have to love a place where, when someone calls out “Hey Giovanni”, a real person answers.

If you are shopping at Hilltop Mall, Apian Way, on the way to Marine World … it is near the freeway.

1971 San Pablo Ave
Pinole, Ca 94564

Phone: (510) 724-4051
Fax: (510) 724-4223
(Please call them and let them know if you send a fax … from the menu)

10-am – 9 pm Monday thru Thursday
10-am – 10 pm Friday and Saturday
10 am – 7 pm Sunday
Call to check about Sunday. They are thinking of closing. The family does everything in the restaurant, so they may need a day off.


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