Italian Cafés of North Beach
by Roberto Soncin Gerometta
Across town is the neighborhood of North Beach, traditionally the center of Italian-American life here, beloved by locals and popular with tourists who seek the Beat generation haunts of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti.
But this area is more than just a collection of memories past. Despite gentrification and a growing Asian influence, it continues to be one of the more exciting and energetic parts of the city, full of trattorias and pastry shops. The coffee houses, opened by Italian immigrants, remain historic and authentically Italian.
Even though the tide of WiFi cafés is rising, these old-style cafés keep their vitality and loyal clientele by encouraging participation in the tactile world: the smells of roasting coffee, the sounds of cappuccino milk being foamed, the taste of focaccia, the feel of a newspaper.
A customer might hear live music, or strike up a conversation with the owner. That’s not possible at a modern coffee chain. The CEOs of those companies can’t compete with the independent characters and personalities behind the following cafés. (All but one are on Columbus Avenue.)
Caffé Puccini – The legendary composer Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca. So was Graziano Lucchese, the owner of Caffé Puccini, who has devoted the interior to his homeboy and favorite composer. A portrait of the Maestro and posters from Puccini’s operas are on display.
Lucchese has also stocked the famous Puccini jukebox with an eclectic assortment of opera and Italian pop. It is almost impossible to sip a cappuccino here without hearing an aria from “La Boheme” or Modugno’s “Volare,” originally from 1958.
As befits such a cultured café, there is no wi-fi available here.
Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store – Cigars really were sold here at one time, back when this was a men’s-only establishment in the 1920s. When Mario Crismani, born in Pola (Croatia), came along in 1972, he simply added his name to the sign.
Younger family members have replaced Papa Mario at the reigns of the business but it remains a quirky, triangular spot where focaccia sandwiches are formulated on the spot. Kerri, a waitperson there, says she doesn’t imagine Wi-Fi will be added any time soon.
Caffé Roma – Three generations of the Azzollini family stand behind this neighborhood institution. Papa Sergio opened the first Caffé Roma in 1977, as an immigrant from Molfetta in the Apulia region of Italy. His son, Anthony, was five years old when he arrived in the United States, but returned to Italy to learn the art of coffee roasting.
He and his father opened the current Caffé Roma in 1986, where he personally roasts the coffee every week right on the premises. Yes, there’s WiFi here, and even laptops. But customers come for the coffee and the experience.
Caffé Greco- There’s a famous and historic Caffé Greco in Rome, but its red velvet and stuffy interior are far more formal than the Caffé Greco in San Francisco. Tourists and locals come for a cup of Illy coffee, one of the premiere Italian brands.
That’s partly why Cristiano, a somewhat regular visitor, says the Greco is like a slice of Italy, minus the long plane trip.
Caffé Trieste – When Giovanni Giotta and his family left their native Rovigno (now Croatia) for San Francisco, they were nostalgic for the coffee houses of Trieste. And so, In 1956, they opened Caffé Trieste. It became a Beatnik hangout, and has attracted poets and artists ever since Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sipped coffee here, on Vallejo Street at Grant Avenue.
When Papa Gianni was asked how to run a successful café, he answered, “It’s no big deal. You buy the best beans and roast them yourself.” And then he added, “and brew each cup like it’s for you.”
Every Saturday, the Giotta family continues to host a concert for professional and amateur singers alike every Saturday. It’s a peculiar mix of opera, jazz and Italian standards.
Some of these cafés do offer wi-fi service, and some of the customers work on their computers. But one North Beach regular, Mindaugis Bagdon, swears the traditional atmosphere is too firmly established to be threatened. “It’s pretty much business as usual in these places,” he says.
Roberto Soncin Gerometta is an established travel and corporate photographer based in San Francisco.