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

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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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.

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John Geluardi

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