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

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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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."

About The Author

John Geluardi

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