Daniel Babai might just have pizza sauce in his veins. His father, Danny Babai, opened Giovanni’s Pizza on upper State Street in 1979, when Daniel was just a year old. His first memories of the pizzeria were, not surprisingly, the video games from this ever-family-friendly establishment. “I’d get these painted quarters to play with, as we’d get them back when they came to collect,” he recalled. From there, he got to work the drink window. “I had to be 11 or 12, and I stood on a milk carton, as I couldn’t see over the counter,” he said. “I used to have to shout for one of the older guys up front to get beers when people ordered those.”
While Daniel did work at the restaurant through high school, he headed in a different direction after college at U of Colorado at Boulder, working as a broker for Morgan Stanley from 2000-2004. Things changed, though, when, “My dad talked about selling the place and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ It was like a girlfriend breaking up with you.” He also knew that Giovanni’s might expand to a third location beyond the original State Street store and the second shop in I.V. “I grew up a Mesa rat,” he said. “That drew me back into it.”
The Babai hand helps keep the familial in the familiar, creating what Daniel called, “A fast casual restaurant that serves something the adults will eat, too.” That’s no idle claim, and one that’s been true for the restaurant’s entire 30 years. Danny the elder, after a background in the food industry, took over a pizza joint in Southern California and learned the business. Moving to Santa Barbara, he decided to change things a bit, for as his son Daniel said, “The place he turned around skimped on everything. He wondered, ‘What if I use the best of everything and charge a bit more?'”
That shift has been a huge hit. “We make our meatballs here, we make our lasagna here, we make our own garlic bread,” Babai boasted. “It’s homemade-intensive, if that’s a phrase. People ask about our buttermilk dressing, and the secret is it’s fresh buttermilk. We go through it really rapidly. It has to stay cold-there’re no preservatives.” Indeed, the dressing has the tang only something real can provide.
The same is true for the pizzas, loaded with toppings that taste like what they’re supposed to-you won’t confront a dull, canned mushroom here. Instead, expect clever surprises like the cilantro atop the BBQ chicken, giving the pie a bit of zing and a clever call-out to the Mexican influences Santa Barbara can’t escape. For although everyone, it seems, loves pizza, people tend to hunger for their first love. Babai said, “The hardest thing is living up to everyone’s regional expectations. People come in and say, ‘I haven’t had your pizza. I’m from New York-I know pizza.’ I just smile. Usually they end up saying, ‘It’s the best pizza since I left.’ I’ll take that.”
Babai is also taking a look at the bigger picture, hoping to expand the Giovanni’s brand while being sure to keep it a family operation. The Mesa location, which took six years to open, has been doing fine business since day one on March 12. “The Mesa is a little village, if you will,” he said. “People are still coming in to check us out.” The spot certainly is comfortable, comes complete with Wi-Fi, and is cleverly designed, too-the video games are in a separate room with a door, but the room has a large Plexiglas window, so parents never lose sight of their kids. “We want the family crowd and the softball crowd,” he said, “but we don’t want to turn away people who want quiet, too.”
Back on State Street, his wife Loni “works part-time at the shop as manager, part-time at home bookkeeping. Our two-year-old keeps us busy.” And Danny (senior, that is) still keeps an eye on things, living near Hendry’s Beach. “We have a lot of loyal San Roque customers,” Daniel related. “They’ve known me since I was little. But people will come in and my dad will say, ‘I used to give her lollipops. Now she has a kid.'”
Pick up your own pie at three Giovanni’s locations: 3020 State Street (682-3621); 6583 Pardall Road, Goleta (968-2254); or 1905 Cliff Drive (560-7492). See giovannispizzasb.com. [Other “Giovanni’s” are not affiliated with the Babai family’s restaurants.]