It’s been 35 years, but Caffé Italia, a staple in Davis, will close at the end of August to make room for a new hotel and conference center.
Co-owner Kevin Katz founded the restaurant with his father, Bert, in 1982. Originally intending to go to Chico State, Katz got attached to the restaurant business and bought out his father three years later.
“My dad’s gone now – he passed away too soon,” Katz said. “For me it’s going to be tough because he and I built all this.”
Back in 1982, the duo gutted the building, built all of the wooden booths by hand and redid the kitchen. Since then, not much about the decor has changed. They’ve padded the wooden seats and added a patio, but all of the handmade booths remain.
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One thing has changed, though. Katz hasn’t been the sole owner since 2000. He met his wife, Shar, back in 1995 – a few years after she moved to Davis to work.
“I started dining here before I met Kevin,” she said. “I joke that I fell in love with his lasagna before I fell in love with him.”
At first, the couple had a rule that they were “never ever” going to work together. But “things happen,” Shar Katz said, laughing.
At first, she volunteered to cover for employees during the holiday season so they could take off work. Once she had her foot in the door, she began working on catering. Soon enough, she was a full-time employee and co-owner.
On the site that currently houses Caffé Italia and University Park Inn and Suites, the latest plans call for a new Hilton boutique property called Hotel Eleven11 with 110 rooms and conference space.
Both Kevin and Shar Katz agree that Davis has been good to them, and since they found out three years ago that the restaurant would be demolished to make room for the complex, they have been looking for a new home for Caffé Italia.
Though they haven’t found a new location yet, they have had many meetings throughout the years looking for a spot. While they would like to stay in Davis, they say they are open to moving to Woodland or Winters, where many of their customers live. In years past, an agreement to move the restaurant to South Davis eventually fell through. The couple would prefer to keep the restaurant in Yolo County.
Budget has also been a factor in choosing where to move. The Katzes are not in a position to do a full restaurant build-out. Their ideal spot would be a second-generation restaurant that doesn’t require a full remodel, but just a renovation. That way, they can move their furniture and decorations to the new restaurant.
Another consideration during the potential moving process is maintaining a reasonable commute for employees. Many of the cooks, servers and managers of the restaurant have been there for years. The lead cook has worked there for 19 years; the prep cook for 14.
Chris Taesali, the restaurant’s general manager, is not too worried about the prospect of moving. He is one of five members of his family who has worked at Caffé Italia at some point, and he has faith that the owners will keep the restaurant rolling.
“I like the people I work for. I like the product, and I like the owners,” he said. “It’s almost like family here. Everybody probably says that, but I’ve been here nine and a half years. I wouldn’t be here for nine and a half years if I didn’t actually feel it.”
Hostess Heidi Fusaro has worked at the restaurant since February 2008, when she was just 19. She worked full-time while studying at Sacramento City College and later UC Davis. Fusaro’s connection to the restaurant goes beyond that. She met her husband back when he was a cook in 2009, and they’ve been married for more than two years.
When a restaurant has been around for 35 years, it becomes entrenched in the community.
“We have a lot of folks come into town, go to college and move on,” Shar Katz said. “But when you come back, you make it a point to get your favorite meal. It’s nostalgia. It’s kind of like how you always remember those family dinners grandma cooked for you.”
Fans of the restaurant have about a month to pick out their favorite dish from the classic menu – for now.
“A lot of opportunities are showing up right now,” Kevin Katz said. “We just gotta see if one will work out.”