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The fight for the bohemian soul of North Beach's Caffe Trieste 

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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The regular Saturday concert at Caffe Trieste in North Beach was already under way when the cafe's founder, Giovanni Giotta — known to regular customers simply as Papa Gianni — arrived. He climbed down from the passenger side of a large red truck and walked briskly across the street, tucking a shopworn binder of sheet music carefully under his arm to protect it from a light rain.

At 88, Papa Gianni is still the concert's undisputed main attraction. Evoking a midlife Frank Sinatra, the slender man wore a pinstripe sportscoat, white turtleneck, tinted sunglasses, and a short-brimmed fedora. When he walked into the crowded cafe, a murmur rose above the clank of coffee cups, pastry plates, and wineglasses. "Papa Gianni is here," one woman says. "That's him, in the hat," another adds. "He's so cute."

Papa Gianni, who has been performing at the Trieste since the cafe opened 52 years ago, joined the band being led by his youngest son, Fabio. The family patriarch and consummate showman crooned the lyrics of "Quisto Paese du Sole," a classic Italian song, as he moved through the cafe, singing directly to individual women and then toasting their beauty with a glass of red wine.

Papa Gianni may be the star, but the show is a family production. Fabio sings 1940s pop tunes and plays the accordion; Giotta's wife of nearly 70 years, Mama Ida, joins him to sing romantic, sometimes lusty duets; and their daughter, Sonia, takes breaks from waiting tables to sing Italian ballads and Patsy Cline songs.

For years, the Giottas' sense of family has permeated not only their performances, but also the cafe's management. Since the Trieste opened in 1956, its patrons have been embraced first as members of the extended family and second as customers.

During a break, Papa Gianni warmly greeted longtime regulars and fans in his heavy Italian accent. As he walked by Olga Tozer's table, she reached out and touched his hand. "Papa Gianni, I was just saying that every time we come here, you make us feel like family," she says. A hurt look came over his face, and he used his forefinger to mock tap his hearing aid as if he hadn't heard her correctly. "But sweetheart," he says, "you are family."

The Giottas' nearly unconditional acceptance of their customers made their cafe a focal point of the Beat movement in the 1950s. Today the cafe, which hasn't changed its decor since it opened, is one of the few sanctuaries left for North Beach's Bohemians, misfits, and eccentrics, who increasingly find themselves pushed out of their neighborhood by businesses that cater to tourists and the bridge-and-tunnel set.

But now change is swirling all around the Trieste, and regulars are worried the small cafe may finally succumb to commercialization. The city is rapidly moving forward with plans to create a public piazza on the street outside the cafe; the Catholic Church is planning to open a Franciscan think tank across the street; and a new market is expected to bring busloads of tourists. Most troubling, there have been behind-the-scenes power struggles among Papa Gianni's children and grandchildren on how the legendary cafe should be managed. Papa Gianni has gone into semiretirement, and some are worried that his longstanding acceptance of the Trieste's eccentric regulars may be in the balance.


Caffe Trieste has been the one of the few constants in North Beach, and its regular customers fiercely guard it as though it were an extension of their own homes. Any mention of change, and they can experience acute anxiety and begin to form opposition committees.

About three years ago, Fabio, the president of Caffe Trieste Inc., installed a surveillance camera behind the counter to keep an eye on the baristas. At the same time, he dictated a new policy that required staffers to wear polo shirts. The regular customers were horrified. Surveillance cameras and uniforms are the domain of Starbucks, after all, not a legendary bohemian cafe. Regular Tom Whelan penned a letter of protest that was signed by dozens of customers. When it was presented to Papa Gianni, Whelan says the Trieste patriarch pointed at the wall-mounted camera with a fully extended arm, and with a flourish yelled, "Tear it out!"

Things settled back into their normal routine until a year ago, when poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and architect Dennis Q. Sullivan proposed closing one block of Vallejo Street between Grant and Columbus avenues to create an Italian-style piazza. The area immediately in front of the Trieste would then essentially become a public open space. The proposal has been popular so far, but the approval process has just begun. Mayor Gavin Newsom has fast-tracked the project by waiving application and permit fees, which could easily add up to more than $100,000. The St. Francis Piazza Committee is still struggling to find funding for the estimated $3 million project.

Some cafe regulars are concerned that an increase in "tourbus tourists" wandering around the piazza will put pressure on the Giottas to make the cafe more welcoming. They fear middle-class out-of-towners might not be immediately charmed by the Trieste's outdated decor, concrete floors, and slightly disheveled customers.

Ferlinghetti, who still frequents the cafe, says its "old inmates" should not be worried. "I'm an old inmate myself, and all that's going to happen is suddenly there will be this beautiful piazza facing a church like in Italy," he says. "It will be like the literary Caffè delle Giubbe Rosse on the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence. This is what will happen to the Caffe Trieste."

But other North Beach poets are adamantly against the piazza. "I don't see any advantage to it. It sounds horrible," says George Tsongas, author of The Trieste Chronicles, a book of poems about the cafe. "Send the tourists back. We don't need 'em, don't want 'em. That's all I hear: 'Business, business, business.' It's ruining the country."

Trieste customers say they are most concerned about changes at the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi across the street. About three years ago, former Supervisor Angela Alioto began working with the Archdiocese of San Francisco to revitalize the 159-year-old St. Francis of Assisi Church, which has been designated as the friar's national shrine. Alioto chairs the shrine's Renaissance Project, and spearheaded the construction of a $2.9 million replica of St. Francis' humble stone chapel, called the Porziuncola. The chapel, built inside a church outbuilding, was opened to the public in September 2007. Since then, it has become a popular destination for Catholic pilgrimages. The replica chapel will also be the centerpiece of an ABC Christmas special.

About The Author

John Geluardi

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