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

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.


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?”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

Artist and author Patricia Wakida is working on a biography of Shigeyoshi Murao, known as Shig, who managed City Lights Books in the 1950s and 1960s. She says Papa Gianni is a living link to San Francisco's Italian heritage, and Caffe Trieste is a passageway to the city's rich literary history. “As someone who is interested in history, I wish that these places would never change,” she says. “But without the spirit of Papa Gianni, you can't, in a real way, manufacture his Caffe Trieste.”

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