The Coffeehouses of North Beach

by Elaine Sosa


San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush was a melting pot of the world's cultures: Chinese, Irish, Mexican, Chilean and, of course, the enterprising "forty-niners," who came from across this great land seeking riches and a jolly good time. The Italians began to arrive around 1870 and quickly set up businesses which were familiar to them in the old country such as restaurants, delicatessens, bakeries and coffeehouses. Most of these cafes were located in North Beach, a strip of land wedged between Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf. Here the effervescent Italians worked hard, but never lost sight of how to enjoy life. Many of the old business are still in the neighborhood: Figoni Hardware, its wooden shelves stretching to the ceiling, dates to 1907; Molinari Delicatessen has been the source for everything from artichokes to ziti for over a century; and R. Matteucci & Co., a jeweler whose safe survived the great earthquake and fire, has been selling delicate gold necklaces since 1886.

The oldest cafe in North Beach, as well as the city, is the Savoy Tivoli, which was rebuilt in 1907, a year after the Great Earthquake leveled North Beach and half of the town. Tosca Cafe, a short hop from the Savoy, has been serving espresso since 1919. The beat poets arrived in San Francisco in the mid-50s and quickly took up residence in North Beach's brooding cafes, among them Caffe Trieste and Caffe Malvina. If you were looking for a good cup a joe and some lively conversation, or even just a quiet corner to read and reflect, North Beach was the place for you.

Today, there are over two hundred coffeehouses in San Francisco, many of them individually-owned. The most charming of the bunch can be found in North Beach, a neighborhood where coffee is king and the strains of Italian still waft through the air. Care to take a spin around the neighborhood? Treat yourself to the cafe tour below -- it's easy, tasty and fun!


Caffe Trieste Iolanda Bodi is the Italian mama behind the counter at Caffe Trieste. There isn't a baby that comes in the door who can escape without a kiss from this big Miss. Bussing babies and fixing cappuccinos come naturally to the lovable Iolanda, whose brother Gianni Giotta opened this cafe in 1956 and named it after their Italian hometown. The bright yellow and burnt orange walls at Trieste are covered with photos of Gianni and his son Gianfranco crooning. Music is as important as coffee to this family, especially opera. Every Saturday afternoon, the family hosts a live opera performance, inviting old friends and new to pick up a mandolin or do their best on O Sole Mio. This is no formal opera, though: Love Is A Many Splendored Thing is also on the menu, making this songfest as camp as it is cultured. During the week, the cafe takes on a more bohemian air: the colorfully-tiled tables at the back of Trieste are pushed close together and filled with writers, artists and those simply trying to save the world, or at least San Francisco. Young writers are hunched over their laptops; purists write longhand in their journals. One regular, a psychiatrist, comes in every Friday morning to work on his watercolors. The tables up front get the best morning light, which seems to inspire spirited conversation. The house brew is roasted on the premises, with Trieste being one of only three roasters still cooking beans in the old neighborhood. Ask Iolanda to fix you her favorite, a caffe latte. She'll probably teach you a little Italian while she's at it.

Caffe Malvina The old Malvina was located in a dark, cramped space on Union Street near Grant. Founded in 1956, Malvina was a home away from home for the beat poets, who filled the smoky air with tales of rage toward a society they could not abide. Fast-forward to 1987, when a much-publicized rent increase sent Malvina scurrying to a new location less than a block away. The new cafe is a beauty, a window-walled wonder which faces lush Washington Square Park, the heart and soul of North Beach. Sunlight floods in and dances on the marble table tops, which are filled with neighborhood folks waking up with the help of Malvina's tasty house blend, a Viennese roast. Current owner Roberto Bruno is placing a greater emphasis on food at the new Malvina. A quiet crowd reads the morning paper as they nibbles on croissants or the excellent potatoes supreme, a medley of seasoned scrambled eggs and cheese smothering tender new potatoes. Noontime brings in a few dapper gents along with housewives sporting fresh manicures, the kind of folks who can loll over lunch if they choose. Today's Malvina is nothing if not civilized.

Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe Cross the street and pop into Mario's, a long and skinny cafe on the south side of Washington Square Park. Every seat affords an excellent view of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, its milky white spires piercing the deep blue sky. We have Mario to thank for the view. It was he who decided to place a row of windows along one wall of his cafe, ostensibly to let in some light and chase away the smoky card games, a staple at this location since the turn of the century. Mario purchased this old cigar store in 1971 and turned it into a cafe. His wife Liliana was in charge of food while daughter Julie pulled the espressos behind the long oak bar. Not much has changed nearly a quarter century later: Liliana still delivers her flaky apple turnovers and light-as-air ricotta cheesecake every morning, and Julie is still making cappuccinos, albeit with a lot more help. And Mario? He's probably down the street playing bocce ball. Neighborhood residents come to Mario's early for their first cup of coffee. Lunchtime is prime time, thanks to the best focaccia bread sandwiches in town. These thick slabs of bread are topped with meatballs, eggplant, chicken or sausage. Heat `em up and they're all you'd want. One patron sums it up best when I ask him why he comes to Mario's: "I come here when I'm hungry." Young and old, traditional to hip have found common ground at Mario's: food. Now that's Italian.

Caffe Roma Walk in the front door of Caffe Roma down the block and the young members of the Azzollini clan will greet you with cries of "honey," "sweetie" and "darling." Even if they don't know you. That kind of charm is hard to resist. Papa Sergio Azzollini started roasting beans in North Beach almost ten years ago. These days, cafe duty is in the capable hands of his kids Tony, Lisa and Irene. Irene's fiance, Frank, mans the shiny red Probat roaster which is at the front of the cafe. The look at Roma is mod Italian, just about right for the young turks who come in the door to talk sports with Tony. Seating is at a small coffee bar or at one of many marble discs spread about the gleaming Italian tile floor. Performers from the Beach Blanket Babylon revue down the street pop in throughtout the day for a quick java jolt, although they leave their show-stopping hats back at the theater. Local politicos and restauranteurs like it here, too, as do the older Italians living in the neighborhood. It may well have something to do with the coffee, which is truly a taste of Rome.

Caffe Greco Can-can girls line the lemon-colored walls at Caffe Greco a block away. Alas, they're just posters, but they speak volumes about the European flair of this North Beach cafe. The buzz of foreign languages is unmistakable at Greco and goes hand-in-hand with the many guidebooks flipped open at the small tables filling this triangular space. While tourists from Paris and Rome and most everywhere else are vying for the indoor tables, locals are scrambling to snag a seat at one of six outdoor tables facing bustling Columbus Avenue. This is the spot to see and be seen, especially on a weekend morning, when North Beach's haute monde likes to ride up on their Harley, pout firmly in place. Everyone at Greco savors the smooth Illy espresso, which is dispensed by the friendliest barboys in town. Owner Hanna Suleiman, a tall fellow with a ready smile, should be appointed Ambassador to North Beach. If you aren't smiling when you walk into Greco, you will be by the time you leave.


The Steps of Rome "We have a good time here and everything else follows," says Enzo Pellico, owner of The Steps of Rome. Now that's an understatement. If you've every wondered where the term Romeo came from, just pay a visit to The Steps of Rome on cafe-heavy Columbus Avenue. The crowd here is Eurocool, a collection of young men drenched in cologne and sporting sunglasses on their foreheads. One young, perfectly-tanned patron has only been in San Francisco for two weeks and has already made Steps his home-away-from-home: "The sun is always in this place," he tells me. "Sun and coffee together -- paradise." When I ask Adonis what he'll be doing in San Francisco, he smiles and replies matter-of-factly "I'll do nothing." There are women here, too, pretty young thins right out of a Calvin Klein ad. Ask the Romeo behind the counter to fix you a cappuccino and he'll swirl the milk in the shape of a heart. Italian Top 40 tunes play in the morning, but they start to pulsate in the afternoons and absolutely blast at night. Owner Pellico visits his beloved Rome every three months to stock up on new Italian music, sometimes spending over a thousand dollars in the process. Sundown means party up at Steps, with the crowd forming a makeshift conga line at the counter while the waitstaff dances and sings to the groovy tunes. There is no chance that you'll feel alone at The Steps of Rome, and no doubt that you'll have a rocking good time.


Savoy Tivoli The city's oldest coffeehouse has turned into somewhat of a frat house, possibly as a result of its late-in-the-day schedule (the Savoy opens at 5 PM on weekdays, 3 PM on weekends). Elbow your way into Savoy Tivoli on a weekend night and you'll be competing for floor and table space with hordes of twenty-somethings guzzling beers and acting cool. Espressos, cappuccinos and lattes are still listed on the blackboard menu, but are far outnumbered by the beer selection. Socializing is the order of the day (or night) on the Savoy's front terrace, an indoor-outdoor space graced with metallic palm fronds where the din is deafening. Move further back into the cafe and you'll bump into two pool tables dominated by pouty lads wearing low-slung jeans. The decor is minimal since the crowd here is the decor. If you're looking for a cup a joe, come before midnight, when the coffee pots are turned off. "Having some coffee to sober up is a myth," says Pietro Obert, weekend manager at the Savoy. "You should have water instead." Looks like Pietro has put this theory to the test.

Tosca Cafe The oldest espresso machines in San Francisco, two tall chrome beauties manufactured by Victoria Arduino of Torino and dating to 1920, can be found at Tosca, a smoky cafe with dark and dusky murals of operas, Puccini and Venezia. Nighttime is the time at Tosca, since the doors open at 5 PM. Eyestrain is a definite possibility in this dimly lit space, but the smart, baby-boomer crowd doesn't seem to mind. They are more focused on ordering cappuccinos from barmen in short white waistcoats who prowl the long, backlit bar at the front of this sexy cafe. A cappuccino at Tosca means a concoction of steamed milk, brandy and chocolate, a tradition dating to Prohibition, when patrons used the code word "cappuccino" to get a spiked drink. Drinking is still big business at Tosca, where city slickers from Mayor Willie Brown to actor Nicolas Cage and director Francis Ford Coppola order Martinis, Manhattans and the ever-popular Lemon Drop (shaken, not stirred). Get ready for your close-up.


North Beach Cafes

Caffe Trieste 601 Vallejo Street (415) 392-6739
Caffe Malvina 1600 Stockton Street (415) 391-1290
Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe 566 Columbus Avenue (415) 362-0536
Caffe Roma 526 Columbus Avenue (415) 296-7942
Caffe Greco 423 Columbus Avenue (415) 397-6261
The Steps of Rome 348 Columbus Avenue (415) 397-0435
Savoy Tivoli 1434 Grant Avenue (415) 362-7023
Tosca Cafe 242 Columbus Avenue (415) 391-1244