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

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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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.

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John Geluardi

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