Caffe Trieste: North Beach landmark stays strong even amid pandemic

Ida Pantaleo Zoubi, granddaughter of cafe founder, and Adrienne Giotta keep tradition alive

By Kathryn Hurd

Special to The Examiner

For the past 55 years, Andre Armand has started his mornings by sipping the same, San Francisco-based, Italian-brewed espresso. Even with the arrival of Omicron, his plans haven’t changed.

Armand, a fourth-generation San Franciscan and former antique shop owner, started drinking coffee from the historic Caffe Trieste as a high school student in 1956, the same year it opened its doors. “There are so many regulars, like myself, who have been coming day after day, for years and years, that there’s social groups that have formed here,” Armand told The Examiner. “There’s all kinds of people here, and that’s the charm of this place.”

Armand is one of countless notable cafe regulars, including two late, decorated San Francisco icons: writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of the beloved City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, and Jack Hirschman, The City’s former poet laureate, who resided in an apartment above the Trieste for more than 20 years. Portraits of both men are now proudly displayed in the cafe’s windows.

The Trieste’s connection to San Francisco legends and local businesses leads many to describe it as the heartbeat of North Beach, The City’s “Little Italy.” In the words of Elaine Katzenberger, director of City Lights Booksellers, “It’s a neighborhood anchor — a living room and gathering place for the North Beach regulars. It’s also a great place to meet up with friends or entertain someone new in town. Who doesn’t remember their first visit to the Trieste?”

But the cafe attracts more than just artists and bibliophiles — it’s a magnet for academics, free thinkers and the politically minded. “There’s lawyers and doctors and judges and hangers-on. There’s such a diverse population that makes it terribly interesting and inclusive,” Armand explains.

Simply put, there’s a seat for everyone, from every walk of life, at the Trieste. And with the onset of pandemic restrictions, its welcoming, living room-like feel has been craved by locals more than ever.

Caffe Trieste’s walls are adorned with pictures of family, beloved customers and notable visitors. (Photo by Kathryn Hurd)

Caffe Trieste’s walls are adorned with pictures of family, beloved customers and notable visitors. (Photo by Kathryn Hurd)

One such local, Rick Levine, a litigation attorney, has been sipping coffee at Trieste since he moved to The City in 1979. A dear friend of Armand’s, the two met at the cafe, and now regularly share mornings at the Trieste discussing city sports and politics. Levine’s appreciation for the cafe stems from its role as a hotspot of San Francisco’s beat culture. “North Beach has been a center for new literature starting in the late ’40s after World War II. The whole beat literary movement was largely between here and New York, and this was the beat neighborhood. This was it.”

Levine is right. In the 1950s and 1960s, it’s likely that during a casual stop at the Trieste, customers could observe prominent beatniks, including poet Allen Ginsberg, writer Jack Kerouac and novelist Michael McClure, sipping coffee by the vintage jukebox. Screenwriter Philip Kaufman, widely recognized for films like “The Right Stuff” and “The Wanderers” and his affiliation with the counterculture movement, is said to frequent the cafe with his family. It’s also reportedly the spot where Francis Ford Coppola completed his writing of “The Godfather,” and has served stars such as Demi Moore, Michael Douglas and Nicolas Cage. Photos of celebrity visitors adorn the walls.

Other locals include the neighborhood’s small business owners, such as Dan Macchiarini, who runs Macchiarini Creative Design, which was opened in 1948 by Macchiarini’s father, who fled Italy under Mussolini’s reign. “In the 1940s and ‘50s, North Beach was a depressed neighborhood. There were no rules against a live-and-work space, so you had a tremendous amount of artists who moved here,” he says.

Macchiarini adds that around the time the Trieste was founded, artists and craftsmen could rent a storefront for less than $100 a month in North Beach. “It was cheap, and it allowed artists to experiment,” he recalls. In cafe lore, the Trieste fed struggling artists, often for long periods of time, for free.

Also key to Trieste’s culture is its adjacency to San Francisco’s Chinatown. “At first, there was a bit of a culture clash, but as the tolerance grew, it created a space for nonconventional thinking, which is one of the reasons the beats wound up here,” Macchiarini explains. As the beats started to convene, the Trieste evolved from a corner coffee shop into a focal point for the exchange of ideas and powerful discussion, felt by all that passed through it.

As the concentration of artists grew, the neighborhood began to attract more tourist attention, from which a booming restaurant and coffee shop scene emerged. But among them all, Macchiarini says, “The Trieste was the premiere. It became the carrier of morning culture in North Beach.”

In the words of San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, “It’s been a second home and second family for over half my life.”

Caffe Trieste founder Giovanni Giotta (“Papa Gianni”) on opening day, April 1, 1956. (Photo courtesy Ida Pantaleo Zoubi)

Caffe Trieste founder Giovanni Giotta (“Papa Gianni”) on opening day, April 1, 1956. (Photo courtesy Ida Pantaleo Zoubi)

Reflecting on pastimes at the cafe, devout customers often recall live musical performances by Caffe Trieste founder Giovanni Giotta (“Papa Gianni”) and his children, Gianfranco and Sonia. Giotta, who with his family immigrated to the United States from Northeastern Italy in 1951 through Ellis Island, opened the cafe’s doors on April 1, 1956.

Giotta is often described as the first “Espresso Pioneer” of the West Coast, with a knack for brewing authentic Italian blends, as well as a vibrant and hardworking family man. He and his wife, Ida, were also talented vocalists, and by the 1980s, their family had formed a musical troupe that performed Saturday night concerts that were beloved by customers. To this day, customers can catch occasional live shows by local musicians such as David Sturdevant and Ron Sfarzo, who have performed at the cafe for years.

Since Giotta’s passing in 2016 at age 96, his granddaughter, Ida Pantaleo Zoubi, has co-owned and managed the Trieste with her aunt, Adrienne Giotta. She also serves as a board member of the North Beach Business Association, alongside Macchiarini. Zoubi started working at the Trieste at age 9, under the watchful eye of her Aunt Iolanda. She assisted with simple clean-up and behind the counter work, observing her family nurture the cafe.

“There wasn’t much difference between family members and customers. It was all the same to me,” Zoubi remembers, and the same holds true today. “People from all walks of life come here. We all have the same goal. We want to keep it going, protect it and protect this neighborhood.”

According to Paul Bracco, who has served as the Trieste’s roastmaster for the past 42 years, Papa Gianni’s childhood nickname for Zoubi was “Terremoto,” or earthquake. “She shakes everything up, and makes things better. And right now, she’s keeping the cafe going at any cost, for her love of tradition and family.”

Even through the pandemic, which forced the shuttering of many cherished San Francisco cafes and restaurants, Zoubi found a way to adapt and keep Caffe Trieste alive.

“COVID drew a lot of small businesses together, more so now than ever. The love of the community has always been here. I don’t want to say it’s stronger because they’ve always been so supportive even before COVID,” Zoubi explains. “We’re all family.”

For a few months and for the first time in its history, the Trieste closed its doors. Eventually, they opened a to-go window, an adjustment to customers and employees alike. “It was fairly hard at the beginning,” says Paul Maedje, who has worked behind the Trieste counter for over a decade. “It’s a community that you don’t see anywhere else, and we managed. Ida did an amazing job of keeping everyone safe.”

Ida Pantaleo Zoubi (back second left) with her family outside the Trieste. (Photo by Kathryn Hurd)

Ida Pantaleo Zoubi (back second left) with her family outside the Trieste. (Photo by Kathryn Hurd)

For now, the Trieste is back to its regular programming: Locals are enjoying their conversation, community and coffee inside the cafe, and employees are focused on their annual holiday toy drive for the San Francisco Fire Firefighters Toy Program. The drive, which aims to provide toys for over 40,000 children across The City, draws countless Trieste regulars and features a live musical performance.

“Last year, we had two rooms filled from top to bottom with toys,” Zoubi recalls. “We couldn’t even walk in!”

On April 21, the Trieste received a Certificate of Recognition from the California Legislature for its ongoing commitment to North Beach residents. On the same day, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors designated April 1 as “Caffe Trieste Day,” paying special recognition to Zoubi and Giotta for maintaining community over “music, laughter and a good cappuccino for decades to come.”

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