Italian American Heritage Month: Best Espresso in North Beach

On May 1, 1920, a man by the name of Giovanni Giotta was born, in a little fishing village, in Italy, called Rovigno D’Istria, Today that little village is part of Croatia. Just north of Rovigno D’Istria is an Italian city called Trieste. Trieste is famous for coffee. It is Italy’s largest coffee port, home of world renown Illy Cafe and the residents there are said to drink twice as much coffee as anywhere else in Italy. Giovanni Giotta had bigger dreams than to stay in the humble village, where he grew up, and to become a fisherman. His dreams brought him to Trieste, where he studied Opera and fell in love with coffee and the culture surrounding it. When he finished his training, he came to San Francisco, with a dream of becoming and opera singer.

Giotta made his way to North Beach, San Francisco’s “Little Italy”. When he arrived, he took a job as a window washer and saved as much money as he could. His earnings from that humble job would soon go to create one of San Francisco’s most beloved businesses, a place that is still considered the heart beat of North Beach today; Caffe Trieste.

cappuccino at Caffe Trieste in San Francisco
Cappuccino at Caffe Trieste in San Francisco

Caffe Trieste serves, hands down, the best cup of espresso in North Beach, the Bay Area and is a serious contender for best cup of espresso in the United States. The coffee is rich and robust and is roasted daily. It is strong but not bitter. The coffee making style was inspired by that of Illy and the traditional coffee typically served in Trieste, Italy.

Caffe Trieste is so much more than just a spot for a great cup of Joe. Locals consider the joint North Beach’s living room. People from all walks of life have gathered there from opening day, April 1, 1956, until today. Giotta would soon become known, affectionately, by all, as “Papa Giani”. Caffe Trieste has served coffee to homesick Italians, who gather for espresso, and conversation, in their native tongue. It has been a gathering place for artists, writers and other bohemian types. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Light’s Book Store, once said, “Caffe Trieste is the center of bohemian culture in San Francisco, there is no other place like it”. Caffe Trieste is truly a business for the every man. Even down on their luck locals, like, Roy Mottini, have always, been welcome there.

Mottini, a local man, diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia in his 20’s, lived at a North Beach SRO for years. He was known for his thrift store suits, shaking his cane and yelling profanities; a true San Francisco type character. He came into Caffe Trieste daily for a latte and was always made to feel welcome. When he fell on hard times, the community at Caffe Trieste helped him. When he passed away, they held a memorial in his honor at the Cafe.

Music, Poetry and the art of conversation were always a part of the equation at Caffe Trieste. Papa Giani never became an opera singer but he did perform many songs, over the years, at his beloved Cafe. “O Solo Mio”, was his most requested crowd pleaser. The Cafe open during the hey day of the Beatnik movement, just around the corner from the most famous West Coast hub of the Beatniks; Columbus and Broadway. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were among the regulars who enjoyed coffee and wrote and performed poetry at the Cafe. Screen plays were written there as well. The most famous script completed at Caffe Trieste was written by Francis Ford Coppola. It was a little film, you may have heard of, called “The Godfather”

Many interesting locals enjoyed coffee at Caffe Trieste over the years, including America’s first topless dancer, Carol Doda, who worked at the Condor nearby, local actor and comedian Robin Williams and local musician and founder of Jefferson Airplane, Paul Kantner. Kantner lived in North Beach in his later years and was often seen holding court with strangers at the Cafe. He has a drink named after him, on the menu, to this day.

Caffe Trieste is such a well known San Francisco institution that it has been featured in a number of Hollywood films. Among them are , “Wild Flowers” in 1999,“40 Days and 40 Nights” in 2003, and “Just Like Heaven”in 2005.

Giovanni Giotta of Caffe Trieste
Giovanni Giotta of Caffe Trieste

Papa Giani passed away in 2016, but Caffe Trieste is still going strong. It is still run by family members , who continue to roast espresso daily, in the same way it has been done since 1956. Espresso was a daily ritual in San Francisco decades before the first Starbucks opened in Seattle. To this day, no second or third wave coffee roaster can compete with the quality of coffee or with the welcoming nature of the venue itself. Nobody is ever rushed at Caffe Trieste. Coffee is served in proper ceramic cups. There is a small menu of reasonably priced savory foods and pastries. You can even enjoy a glass of wine or an apertivo there.

While Papa Giani did not bring the first espresso machine to the US, he is considered the “Espresso Pioneer of the West Coast”. He captured the essence of coffee culture in Italy and brought it to North Beach. To this day, locals and tourists line up daily to enjoy Papa Giani’s special espresso blend.It is the real deal, a true San Francisco haven for culture, art, history and really great coffee. During Italian American Heritage Month, coffee at this North Beach institution is a must.