North Beach, the “Little Italy” of San Francisco is historically home to a large Italian population. And it was here on April 1, 1956 that Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta, an Italian immigrant from Trieste opened his café.
Missing the coffee houses and flavors of his native land including a good espresso, Giotta hoped to re-create and share the experience he had back in Italy with his new countrymen. In “Old Italy” author Andy Kaufman reveals that “Giovanni’s classic old world brewing techniques were quickly embraced, securing his reputation as the espresso pioneer of the West Coast. Giovanni explained this success as ‘buy the best beans, roast them yourself then brew each cup like it’s for you’.” Making the customer happy has always been his number one mantra.
But it wasn’t just a good espresso or a delectable Italian pastry that lured locals to the door; it was the warm welcoming atmosphere the café provided. Friends today come for their favorite coffees and to read the newspaper, chat, shoot the breeze about politics, talk about the weather, their families or just life in general. Most have come so long they’ve staked out their “zones” and favorite tables in the café. Patrons run the gamut from teens, urban professionals and political officials to old beatniks, hippies and everything in between.
61 years later, Caffe Trieste is still a San Francisco landmark tradition. Walls are covered with memorabilia, old family photos and snapshots of famous actors and entertainers who’ve frequented the coffee house. The antique juke box plays old familiar tunes.
An original coffee grinder sits atop an old phone booth containing board games for patrons’ enjoyment. An original 1957 stucco painting celebrating the fishing industry covers the back wall. Every crack in the floor and every chip in the wall have a story to tell, as the café’s never been remodeled. There’s something comforting about its vintage appearance and timeless appeal. As one smiling patron described it “I’ve been coming here for 20 years. Nothing changes here. In a world of constant, crazy change, this just feels right.”
Caffe Trieste is still owned and operated by the 3rd generation family. Ida Pantaleo Zoubi is Giovanni’s granddaughter and we had the pleasure of sitting with Ida and husband Fady as they regaled us with stories of the family and the popular café that Ida’s worked in since she was 12.
A large framed photo of “Pappa Gianni” with the words “In Loving Memory” sits strategically in a corner of the café, no doubt his opportunity to still watch over his beloved coffee house. So popular and loved by the community, when he died in June, 2016, the café was closed. Nearby North Beach streets were closed off and his burial processional passed by the café. Policemen, firemen and city officials all came to pay their respects to their beloved friend.
The list of famous people who’ve frequented the café seems endless-Michael Douglas, Tim Burton, Nicholas Cage, Adam Sandler and Samuel L. Jackson. Francis Ford Coppola worked on his screenplay for The Godfather at a back table of Trieste. And the coffee house has been a movie set for many feature films and television shows.
Quality, craftsmanship and a whole lot of love go into each cup of coffee here at Trieste. The process begins with securing the finest beans possible from regions like Colombia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Mexico and Jamaica. Through controlled roasting, thoughtful blending and those time-tested Giotta family secrets, the café’s achieved the consistency of unique flavors and overtones that have made their house blends the favorites of coffee lovers throughout the city and beyond.
Italian roast blends are included in all coffees. Espressos are double shots-rich, bold and smooth with a mesmerizing aroma transporting us back to the café’s we’ve frequented in Italy.
One of the most popular coffees on the menu is the Café Africano, a double shot of espresso mixed with an equal measure of steamed extra-rich milk. After sampling this robust delight, we can understand why it’s a local favorite.
Pastries in the shop are made fresh daily by North Beach’s Dianda’s Italian American Pastry shop specializing in “old world” Italian specialties. It’s almost impossible to choose between the classic cannoli, cheesecake and numerous assorted pastries enticing us at the bar. We settle on the number one best seller- the Almond Ring, the perfect accompaniment to our coffees.
Service here is spectacular and the baristas like Paul have been with the café for years. And you can almost bet your boots a member of the Giotta family will either be behind the coffee bar or in the adjacent retail store chatting with customers they’re on a first-name basis with.
If the café’s reputation for top notch coffee isn’t enough, this talented family established the Caffe Trieste Saturday Concert, one of the oldest and longest running musical shows in San Francisco. All five members of the Giotta family (from the late Pappa Gianni on) have been performing on stage, radio, television and in films since 1953. They’ve sung with celebrities like The Drifters, Frankie Lane, Claudio Villa and Domenico “Volare” Modugno. A photo on the café wall shows the family serenading Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti for his birthday celebration in 1979. These family concertos featuring Italian songs continue to this day and the cost of admission not surprisingly-a cup of coffee!
As we say our farewells, we can’t help but think of the late President John F. Kennedy’s quote “Everywhere, immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta came to the U.S. through Ellis Island with his family for one reason- seeking the American dream. Caffe Trieste became that dream. And thanks to his loving family who continue his traditions for excellence, visitors and locals have a warm comfortable place in the world where practically nothing ever changes.
Article and photos by Noreen L. Kompanik