“Papa” Giovanni Giotta, the founder of beloved North Beach coffeehouse Caffè Trieste, passed away peacefully this past Saturday, June 11th, at the age of 96.
Giotta was known throughout the North Beach community—and beyond—for his generosity, his golden operatic voice, and his ability to bring a motley assortment of North Beach characters together in a 60-year celebration of family and neighborliness. Caffè Trieste is as much a home to its visitors as it is to its regulars, and it was Papa Gianni’s vision that has turned San Francisco’s first espresso house into a cultural institution, somewhere between a cozy Italian living room and a museum.
Born in Rovingo on the Istrian peninsula—which is now part of modern-day Croatia—in 1920, Giotta first went to work with his father as a fisherman at the age of six. He met his wife, Ida, at the age of 19, and in 1951, the couple decided to emigrate to the U.S.
“He had the truest work ethic because he grew up so poor, and his determination was what made our family possible," said his daughter, Sonia. "Even when we were at Ellis Island and I was quarantined for measles, somehow my father was able to get my mother, my brother Gianfranco, and me out of that situation, so that we could take the train all the way to San Clemente."
Along the way, Sonia said, her father heard that San Francisco was more hospitable to Italians, so the family decided to move there. Since he didn't speak English, he got his start washing windows and digging ditches, "but you could tell the American Dream was very alive in him, that he had plans to do much more."
After five years in the States, Giotta opened the original location of Caffe Trieste at Grant and Vallejo in 1956, where it still stands today. (The cafe also has three satellite locations, in Berkeley, Oakland and Monterey.) It's considered to be the first espresso bar in San Francisco, and possibly the entire West Coast as well, and over the years, it drew a steady crowd of regulars, from Francis Ford Coppola (who wrote the screenplay for The Godfather there) to Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner.
In his decades at Trieste, Giotta folded hundreds of newcomers and strangers into his extended family with warmth and sincerity. “I remember when I met him for the first time,” recalls Fady Zoubi, the husband of his granddaughter, Ida. “He asked me, ‘Were you born here? Your mama and papa?’ I replied, ‘Nazareth.’ And he said, ‘You’re an immigrant? Like me? Welcome to Caffè Trieste!'"
Paul Agus, who's worked as a Trieste barista for 25 years, had a similar experience. “I came here from Indonesia in 1991. On my second day in San Francisco, I was given my job at Trieste, but I was also given a family right away. Papa Gianni used to call me every Christmas to make sure I’d give all the regulars free drinks, so they’d know they were part of the family, too.”
District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin also reflected on Giotta's embrace of neighborhood newcomers. "When Augustino Crotti, now the owner of Tomasso’s, was fresh off the boat from Italy, Papa Gianni gave him a job at the Trieste.”
When asked if he also felt like a part of the extended family, Peskin replied, “No. Papa Gianni told me I was family.”
Giotta's granddaughter Ida Zoubi, who now manages the cafe, recalls watching her grandfather interact with regulars as a young child. “Every Saturday morning my mom would take me to work with her, and nonno would talk with everyone."
"We would all go to Italy, to a town called Muggia, and spend the summer there," Ida recalls. "We’d walk around the town and he would make his rounds just like he did here, even into his 90s. He thrived on interacting with the people from everywhere. He bought the bread and other necessities for the caffè, so he knew absolutely everyone.”
" My grandfather helped me become the first person in our family to go to college," said his granddaughter, Nicole Pantaleo, who is now a prosecutor in Marin County. "He would tease me that I was his ‘best investment.’ It was from him that I learned that humanitarian work and community-building are essential.”
And despite Trieste's success, Giotta never forgot his roots. “A few years ago, he brought me downstairs in his home and showed me his safety harness belt from when he was a window washer," Pantaleo said. "He’d saved it for over 50 years, and he was so proud of it. It was a reminder of where he came from.”
Many of Giotta's friends and family reflected on his love of music. "It was that love of music that brought so many people together," Ida said. "He shared that throughout his life, and he passed it on to his sons Gianfranco, Fabio, and his daughter, my mother Sonia."
“My grandfather would sing Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ well into his 80s,” recalls Nicole. “It’s my favorite opera piece, and the triumph in the song is marked by the high note and the word ‘Vincero'—I will win! The aria is one of determination, risk, and the passion to win it all.”
Giotta is also survived by his daughter-in-law, Adrienne Giotta, and his granddaughter, Gianna Giotta. As North Beach mourns Papa Gianni this week, it is clear that the dividends of every victory he won continue to be shared by the vast extended Famiglia Trieste. Grazie mille, Papa!
Services for Giovanni Giotta will be held at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in North Beach at 10am Friday, with a celebration of his life at Caffè Trieste to be held July 9th at 1pm.