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.

Mama Ida Giotta takes a turn at the mike.
Paul Trapani
Mama Ida Giotta takes a turn at the mike.
The cafe hasn't changed its decor since it opened in the '50s.
Paul Trapani
The cafe hasn't changed its decor since it opened in the '50s.

Future plans include a Franciscan think tank to be housed in the church's former rectory. The "Franciscan University" will offer lectures, seminars, and classes rooted in the thought and traditions of St. Francis, which were governed by compassion toward the poor and pax et bonum, or "peace and good."

In a storefront kitty-corner to the Trieste, the Renaissance Project has already opened a nonprofit gift shop, Francesco Rocks, which sells frescos, books on St. Francis, parchments, and various religious gimcrackery.

Alioto, an attorney whose law office is at the foot of Columbus, has spent a great deal of time over the last three years overseeing the Porziuncola and the gift shop. During that time she has made her presence known by getting in arguments with Trieste customers, largely over parking. For decades, the Franciscan friars allowed cafe customers to park their cars across the rectory's two driveways so long as they moved when necessary. But Alioto wanted to be able to park in those spots, and demanded the driveways be kept clear at all times, according to Trieste regular Jimmy Smith. When customers didn't comply, she caused scenes inside the cafe, he says.

Despite the grumbling from people like Smith, Alioto points out that in three years of battling, she has never had anyone towed. "Do you know how many tickets I've gotten because Trieste customers are having their morning cappuccino and reading the newspaper?" she says. "We've been very generous to the Trieste. I've been very sweet about it. Anywhere else in the city, they would be towed."

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who represents North Beach, and a police officer familiar with the neighborhood say it's not just cars that Alioto gets upset about; she has complained about certain Trieste regulars she doesn't want hanging around. "Angela Alioto has been very aggressive about cleaning up that corner," says the officer, who asked not to be identified. "She has even called police and reported people for drug dealing when she knew they weren't. It's ironic that she wanted to be the deputy mayor for homelessness when she has been constantly asking us to get those people out of here."

Alioto denies that she ever reported anyone for drug dealing. Furthermore, she claims, she has been working to help four homeless people who regularly sleep on the steps of the church. "Three of them are women and I've contacted the health department, but [the women] refuse the help," she says. "It's very frustrating, because we have to do something about the cleanliness of the area."

Longtime Trieste customer Tony Long, who has blogged about the issue for the San Francisco Examiner, says Alioto may be a serious threat to Papa Gianni's easy-going tradition because she is dating Fabio, which Long says may give her a hand in the cafe's management. "Angela is known to throw her weight around, and she doesn't like the people who hang out here," Long says. "And because she's seeing Fabio, it makes people nervous."

The origins of Caffe Trieste go back to a time when North Beach was primarily an Italian neighborhood. In the early 1950s, Giovanni Giotta came to San Francisco from Italy with his wife and their two young children. They were penniless, and so he brought them to Saints Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square to ask the fathers for help. "We had nothing, no place to stay, no bread to eat," he recalls. "The father put us with a family and found me a job."

Giotta worked as a window washer during the day and cleaned restaurants at night. Around this time, he garnered some notoriety as a singing window washer. "The people come to the window and I sing to them," he says. "What a personality, eh?"

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