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By 1956, he had an opportunity to take over a modest North Beach business, the Piccola Cafe, which served espresso to neighborhood Italians. Giotta called his new business Caffe Trieste, after the city on the Adriatic Sea near his hometown. He installed a larger espresso machine to serve traditional Italian coffee drinks, including cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos, making the Trieste what the family claims is the first full-service cafe on the West Coast.
The Trieste quickly became a favorite haunt of the San Francisco Beat avant-garde, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac. Papa Gianni welcomed the newcomers; like many working-class Italians in North Beach, he was tolerant of their odd behavior, all-black clothing, and counterculture bluster. "For me, it's simple," he says. "I love all people. They are my life."
San Francisco author Herb Gold says Italian immigrants shared a certain esprit with the Beats that made them compatible. "Many Italian neighborhoods in America became bohemian neighborhoods," says Gold, author of the 1993 book Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love, and Strong Coffee Meet. "Greenwich Village in New York, the North End in Boston, in my hometown of Cleveland — the poets and artists put down roots in the Italian neighborhood. There was a kind of hospitality at Italian bars and restaurants, and rents in those areas were fairly cheap — the whole thing."
San Francisco, CA 94133
Category: Coffee Shops
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Between the notable — some say notorious — Beats and Giotta family concerts, the Trieste began to attract celebrities. Bill Cosby frequented the cafe, and still orders coffee from the Trieste roasting company. On the cafe's walls are pictures of Francis Ford Coppola sitting at the back, banging out the script for The Godfather on a portable typewriter. But the most important event ever for the musically inclined Giottas was the day Luciano Pavarotti crossed the Trieste's threshold.
While celebrities may come and go, the Giottas have always maintained a familial loyalty to their regulars, who include city officials, cops, attorneys, aging Bohemians, outcasts, vagabonds, and neighborhood oddballs. "There has always been a family atmosphere at the Trieste," says poet Kaye McDonough, who was a regular before moving to the East Coast. "And, like in every family, you have the crazy ones and the regular ones and you make do with it."
And, like many families, the Giottas have had their share of disagreements and squabbles. Ten years ago, Papa Gianni's oldest son, Gianfranco, had been the clear heir to run the company, according to Italian tradition, but he died of cancer in 1999. It was a tragedy for the family, and especially Papa Gianni. When asked about it, he lowers his head and says only, "Gianfranco was the brightest star in San Francisco."
After Gianfranco's death, Fabio became the president of Caffe Trieste Inc.; his older sister, Sonia, was named vice president, and Gianfranco's widow, Adrienne, continued as company bookkeeper and secretary and treasurer of the board. At the time, court records show, Adrienne owned a 40 percent share in the company, which she had inherited from Gianfranco; Fabio and Sonia owned only 9 percent each. But in 2003, Fabio allegedly attempted to consolidate control by ousting Adrienne, who turned around and sued.
According to court documents, Fabio and Sonia voted to fire her as bookkeeper, a job she had performed for 21 years, and then voted to remove her from the board. Adrienne alleged in her lawsuit that Fabio stopped paying her dividends generated by her substantial ownership in the company. After she was stripped of her only source of income, Fabio began pressuring her to sell her shares for a price her lawsuit says was "substantially below fair value." The power play apparently backfired: Caffe Trieste Inc. eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and Adrienne kept her 40 percent share of the company.
Fabio's attempt to oust Adrienne, and his previous attempts to change traditions at the Trieste, such as requiring the baristas to wear uniforms, have made regulars wary. They are concerned that once Papa Gianni dies, Fabio will take the opportunity to transform the cafe to attract up-market customers, which would likely mean discouraging patronage from the current regulars. "If Fabio gains control, he would destroy the Trieste," customer Smith says. "He would turn it into a Starbucks, and turn the corner into a Disneyland for rich Catholics."
Fabio is the only Giotta child born in the United States; he has the classic entrepreneurial spirit of a first-generation American. It was largely he who began to capitalize on the Caffe Trieste as a trademark name. As president of Caffe Trieste Inc., Fabio now oversees four franchise cafes in the Bay Area, a coffee roasting facility, an espresso machine import business, and the Trieste Recording Studios.
Fabio says whether Trieste customers like it or not, things have changed in the neighborhood, but he denies planning any significant changes. "I want this place to always be comfortable for the poets, writers, and artists who have always been able to meet here," he said recently after finishing up a musical set that included Sinatra songs and traditional Italian ballads. "I mean, really, what am I going to do? Look at me. I'm a walking anachronism."