Caffe Trieste, 601 Vallejo, San Francisco
Saturday morning at Caffe Trieste. It's 10:30 and most of the seats are taken. Sunlight streams in through the front windows. The staff works briskly behind the counter. And from the rear of the cafe come the sounds of the mandolin, which is being played by several folks assembled in a cozy corner. Am I in Italy, Toto? Nah, it's San Francisco, it just doesn't feel like it on a Saturday morning at Trieste. The mandolins will give way to accordions later on in the afternoon, as owner Gianni Giotta and his son Gianfranco, among others, will serenade their customers with operatic arias and whatever else comes to mind. The Saturday afternoon concerts at Trieste are a long-standing tradition. Gianni's father was a tenor in Italy. Hey, these guys have sung with Pavarotti. Pretty good stuff. I guess it's worth a listen.
This is definitely a neighborhood place. The people who come into Trieste are the neighborhood, and they've chosen to stop in here, have some coffee, maybe something to eat, and do whatever else it is they do in North Beach. It's an extension of their living room. Cafe as salon, a place to read, write or talk about whatever's on your mind. I see the same people over and over again, which is comforting.
The tables are either formica-topped or covered with small, colorful tiles. The front counter is vintage 50s. Imitation wood, chipped in places but still doing the job. My morning guys are behind the counter -- Hamid, Paul and Ernie. Hamid wears a cigarette behind his ear a la James Dean. Looks cool on him, too. These guys only need to see you a few times to know what you'll order. It's a nice feeling to walk into a cafe and not have to order. There are always plenty of newspapers lying around to pick up and read, although most people bring their reading material with them. The walls are painted bright red and orange and are covered with photographs of the Giottas, usually singing. A smattering of baby pictures, those very Italian photos where the nana is kissing a chubby baby. Lots of babies. And the occasional celebrity. Bill Cosby must like this place, because he's in a lot of the pictures. A large mural covers the back wall. I assume it's Trieste, since it looks like some place in Italy. The tables are very close together here, which makes table-sharing almost mandatory. It certainly breaks the ice. You've got to talk to the person sitting next to you -- he's literally on top of you.
Trieste was opened by Gianni Giotta in 1956. His sister Iolanda still works behind the counter many days. Although I'm not sure she's really working, I think she's just getting a kick out of ordering the counter guys around. She comes into this place in her bedroom slippers. Now that's comfortable. She also talks to you in Italian, and somehow you understand her even if you don't speak Italian. Iolanda spends the summers in Trieste visiting relatives. I've been told she'll be back in November, although the fellow next to me says October, and his small son says September. I guess everyone just wants Iolanda to come back. If we had the ability to choose our grandmother, we'd choose Iolanda.
The coffee? Arguably the best in town. It's roasted right next door, Monday through Friday. Flavorful, smooth and the taste lingers with you. They've got some really sugary pastries. The sort of stuff I thought I was long past eating. But it works. I decided to try a bear claw one day and got hooked. This is the stuff we had at the donut shop as kids. Yuk. And I'm eating it again. Amazing.
The fellow seated across from me tells me that he loves the physical space which is Trieste. He's an architect. Makes sense. He always sits on the bench along a back wall and enjoys watching the reflection of the overhead light fixture in his cup of coffee. Interesting. He also tells me that Trieste doesn't have the "unknowing energy of LA," which is a big positive for him. Hey, I knew there was a reason I was in San Francisco.
If you're looking for a place that's as comfortable as the silky-soft slippers on Iolanda's feet, come to Trieste. You're gonna feel really good while you're here and just as good when you leave. It's that kind of place.
© 1995 Elaine Sosa