That's Italian Restaurant
Photo © Richard Cayia Rowe
Located in a historic building moved to new Kernville when Lake Isabella was created in the early 1950s, locally-owned That's Italian Restaurant may be the Kern River Valley's finest dining experience. It is the valley's only Italian restaurant, but That's Italian isn't your typical Italian restaurant. Its menu boasts a unique, European faire that is a favorite of residents and lucky visitors.
That’s Italian is located in the heart of quaint Kernville on Circle Park, which serves as Kernville’s ‘Town Square.’ Almost close enough to hear the raging north fork of the Kern River during the spring and summer rafting season, That’s Italian is located at 9 Big Blue Road. Big Blue was the name of a nearby gold mine discovered in 1860 by Lovely Rogers. The Town of Whiskey Flat, also called "Williamsburg," was established to accommodate miners of the Big Blue Mine. By 1864, the town was renamed Kernville and moved to make way for Lake Isabella built by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1948 and 1952. See Old Kernville aka Whiskey Flat .
That’s Italian is one of the model example of one of the architectural styles seen as appropriate to Kernville. In drafting a Specific Plan to preserve Kern River Valley, Kern County’s Planning and Community Development staff and consultants have drafted Architectural Guidelines for new commercial construction and show That’s Italian at the prototype example of the “Rustic Style” – a style it shares with the Sequoia National Forest’s Kern Ranger District office located on the same block (known at the ‘Log Cabin’). The woodsy, log style hearkens back to the extensive logging history which started in the 18802 in the Kern River Watershed (largest watershed in the Sierra). At 4:00 pm on March 23, 1979, the last timber mill closed down at Johnsondale about 25 miles north of Kernville. Fortunately, the loggers left uncut some significant stands of Giant Sequoia trees up to 1,500 years old not all that far from Kernville. See: Trail of 100 Giants, Kern Plateau, Sequoia National Forest and the The President George Bush Tree located in the 1,700-acre Freeman Creek Sequoia Grove off of the Lloyd Meadow Road, on the Western Divide Ranger District within the Giant Sequoia National Monument on the Sequoia National Forest.
The building that houses That’s Italian shares has its own history, dating back to Old Kernville about 3 miles south of its present location. It has changed over the years, but its simple outline is clearly recognizable in historic photographs at the nearby Kern Valley Museum. In 1946, the building served as Kernville’ Post Office (see photos). After it was moved to its present site, it was Johnson's Sporting Goods.
Type of Food Featured at That's Italian
Being the only Italian restaurant in the area and with considerable encouragement from their loyal regular customers, Anna and Romeo spend many hours creating and preparing dishes to please the palate. In That’s Italian, they’ve introduced northern Italian cuisine with a southern Italian influence to the Kern River Valley. They search local sources for the best quality, fresh seasonal ingredients.
Every day, there is a Special menu board (see photos) with a range of tantalizing specials and daily desserts not on the regular menu, which changes often. Even the most frequent regular diners can find something new to try. Dinners usually range in price from $11.95 to $19.95 for Filet Mignon with shrimp. All dinners include soup or salad and home baked garlic bread. The Super Special of the day includes a dessert. The regular menu features tradition pasta favorites with entrées featuring chicken, meat and seafood dishes with several options for vegetarians. They specialize in traditional Italian dishes like Chicken Marsala with mushrooms in a Marsala wine sauce, Chicken Piccata in a lemon butter sauce or Eggplant Parmigiana. The Penne Pasta Portofino features homemade Italian sausage, fresh spinach, olive oil, garlic and a touch of red pepper. One of the house specialties is Cannelloni Romano (crêpes filled with chicken, ham, ricotta cheese and spinach). They leave pizza to the area’s popular pizza places, so you won’t find it on their menu.
Though Chef Romeo does most of the cooking, Anna is in charge of the homemade desserts which change daily. Usually four or five are offered on the Special menu board. Bavarian cream puffs cherry and apple tarts and red velvet chocolate mousse cake are just some of the offerings. The dessert choices often include Anna’s homemade Tiramisu – a traditional Italian dessert.
That’s Italian has a full Liquor license and features a special cocktail every night from their full bar. The daily menu includes a well appointed wine list, but guests are welcome to bring a favorite bottle of wine with a corkage fee of $8.50. Beers include domestic and imported beers, featuring at couple beers from Germany and Italy recalling Anna & Romeo’s European roots.
The main dining room is flanked by a more intimate dining room and a woodsy room which often serves private parties. The covered front porch is an excellent place to watch Kernville's Circle Park in on warm Summer evenings.
Hours Open: Lunch is served June thru August from 11am to 2:30pm; Dinner from 4 to 9pm all year. Closed on Monday to play golf.
Seasons Open: Reduced hours in Winter.
Price Style for this Establishment: Moderate (complete dinners from $11.95 to $19.95 with most at $14.95)
That’s Italian owners Anna and Romeo Schiavi have deep European roots. Chef Romeo Schiavi learned to cook at his father’s side in Italy. In the late 60s, a 19 year old Anna immigrated to the United States from Cologne, Germany. That was about the same time as Romeo emigrated from Milan, Italy. They met under the bright lights of Las Vegas, Nevada in 1974, married and opened their first Restaurant called “Romeos” to rave reviews in 1980. To spread their culinary wings they decided to move to San Diego in 1984 to open a very successful restaurant called “Portofino” which was voted “Best Italian Restaurant” in San Diego’s North County. They continued to operate restaurants in San Diego and Las Vegas in the 1990s with That’s Italian becoming the 11th restaurant that they have owned and operated in their long, successful career.
Owners Anna and Romeo Schiavi first came to Kernville in 1993, when George Randall asked them to take a look at a restaurant he owned, Brittany’s Café, to see if they would like to manage it. Anna and Romeo had been living in Las Vegas at the time, and Darlene and George Randall had been their regular customers of their Las Vegas Italian restaurant called ‘Anna Bella.’ The Schiavi’s had recently sold Anna Bella and were looking for a new opportunity, so the Randall’s offer came at just the right time.
Anna and Romeo made their first trip to Kernville to look at the Café, and decided to make the move to the little town of Kernville and began managing the restaurant in October 1994. They then bought it two months later. “We had planned to stay for 4-5 years, and now more than 16 years later, we’re still waiting for those 4-5 years to end!” said Anna. “It was one of those things, we got settled, the business was good, the people were supportive, we were the only Italian restaurant, so why not.” Anna & Romeo live in Kernville overlooking the Kern River – close enough to walk to work every day.
Romeo’s upbringing in Italy and Anna’s in Germany gave them an appreciation for good food and hard work. Although the couple does enjoy trying new foods and patronizing different establishments, they don’t go out to Italian restaurants because Anna thinks it’s hard to top Romeo’s cuisine because he’s from Italy and has been cooking for more than 30 years. Schiavi means “slave” in Italian, which Anna says is appropriate since she and Romeo are “slaves to the restaurant business.” Their daughter, Claudette Riehl, has also been working at That’s Italian for more than six years as Anna’s right hand, keeping the business a family affair.
Anna recalls that her first year here, she was surprised that when winter came, business died down significantly. She asked one of her employees what had happened and she simply replied, “Its Winter!” Anna learned that first season that people in the Kern Valley don’t go out as often in the colder months, and so seven years ago she and Romeo began their famous International Nights. The dinners are usually held from October through March, featuring cuisine from different country for one night each month. It’s a set menu during these unique evenings, and all reserved seating. “You have to be creative to generate business in the winter,” Anna explained. Reservations fill up quickly after locals receive the monthly mailing from Anna.
In addition to their International Nights and a dedication to professionalism and excellence, the Schiavi’s attribute their continued success to the wonderful staff they have to help keep things running smoothly. “Restaurant is a business where you have to have passion; if you don’t have passion you’re never going to make it,” said Anna. “That’s what I always tell my employees: it doesn't matter if you’re a waitress or a dishwasher, do the best you can.”
The restaurant is on one level at ground level with a ramp to the street.