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But many customers are dubious about Fabio's commitment to the cafe's tradition of tolerance.
For years, barista Yolanda Bodi was the cafe's mother figure. She knew everybody in the neighborhood, and if someone happened to be down on his luck, she still served him a cappuccino, a pastry, and a warm smile. When Bodi retired to Italy, Papa Gianni's granddaughter, 29-year-old Ida Zoubi, took over that role. "Yolanda was the big Italian mama to absolutely everybody," says Jack Hirschman, poet laureate of San Francisco and a regular since 1972. "The Trieste is far more than a cafe to people; it's a home to them, and it's Ida who is the cultural connection. She is an essential part of the Trieste and the community."
That's why cafe regulars were stunned last October when Fabio fired her.
San Francisco, CA 94133
Category: Coffee Shops
Region: North Beach/ Chinatown
Last year, Zoubi's commitment to Trieste customers was the subject of a San Francisco Chronicle story when she came to the aid of 30-year customer Ray Mottini. One day Mottini, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, came into the cafe and showed her an eviction notice he had found posted on his hotel door. He had never been late on the rent for his room at the St. Paul Hotel, but other tenants complained that he yelled and used foul language, and knocked on their doors late at night.
Zoubi mobilized and coordinated a host of regular Trieste customers to help Mottini. Retired attorney Tony Gantner represented him at eviction hearings. When Mottini was finally kicked out and living on the streets, taxi driver Djaafar Khabouza temporarily took him in. Police Officer Mark Alvarez canvassed the neighborhood for a cheap hotel room that would accept Mottini, and Supervisor Aaron Peskin (another Trieste devotee) finally found him a room in a Tenderloin hotel.
Some customers say that it's people like Mottini who will be considered undesirable when things begin to change on Vallejo Street, and that Zoubi's loyalty to those customers may have put her at odds with Fabio and possibly Alioto. Fabio told his niece, who had opened her own walk-up espresso bar, Cafe Ida, on Sacramento Street, that her services as Trieste manager were no longer needed.
Regular customers planned to circulate a petition asking Papa Gianni to come out of semiretirement and reinstall Zoubi as manager, but it proved to be unnecessary. The story goes that one night Papa Gianni, who has a reputation for being a bit superstitious, had a dream in which Gianfranco came to him from beyond the grave and pleaded with him to rehire Zoubi. The next day, Papa Gianni reversed Fabio's decision and reinstated his granddaughter.
Instead of a petition, customer Long wrote and circulated a thank-you letter bearing more than 150 signatures. When a small group of customers led by Hirschman presented the letter to Papa Gianni, the old man became emotional. "This is beautiful," he told them after looking at the letter. "Don't worry. I love my Ida and I love you, and nobody is going to change nothing. Nothing! Not as long as I am alive."
Fabio refused to discuss his differences with Ida, and would say only that running a family business can be difficult. But Alioto says Ida's firing had nothing to do with her loyalty to regular customers, but rather because she had opened her own business and was less available than before. "Fabio wanted an onsite manager, and she's not onsite," she says. "And that's all there was to it." Zoubi declined to be interviewed for this story and directed all questions to her grandfather and uncle.
If there is tension between Papa Gianni and Fabio, neither is talking about it. Papa Gianni is still the star of the show, with Fabio leading the band with his Petosa accordion; Sonia still exchanges her serving tray for the microphone to belt out Patsy Cline songs.
Fabio is an avid supporter of the proposed piazza because he says it will bring business to the neighborhood, and it will be a beautiful amenity that will help revitalize North Beach. "All neighborhoods have to evolve," he says.
Papa Gianni supports the piazza, though he was initially against it. However, he says his support has one nonnegotiable condition, that no matter what changes take place on Vallejo Street — be they public, commercial, or religious — that the Caffe Trieste will remain untouched. "Non cambiera mai [It will never change]!" he says emphatically.
While things are going along as always at the Trieste, the atmosphere is uneasy. The Giottas and their employees and customers know some kind of change is coming. After all, things cannot stay the same, no matter how much we sometimes want them to. Papa Gianni may be the last of the working-class Italians who in the 1950s made their neighborhoods hospitable to a disheveled and episodically sober group of Beat writers and artists who would launch a cultural revolution.
In North Beach, the family-owned Italian restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, and cafes have slowly disappeared. Across the street from the Trieste, a chain Thai restaurant is operating where Dante Benedetti's New Pisa Restaurant used to sell complete meals with wine for $2. The Mechetti family closed the Gold Spike restaurant in 2006 after 76 years of serving inexpensive hearty meals and cheap drinks. A kitschy, upscale market complete with faux wine barrels and Romanesque facades is opening where Rossi Market once sold produce, inexpensive wine, and salami.