Cool Beans: Espresso pioneers of the West Coast Caffe Trieste bring good java, Italian cuisine and lasting legacy to Monterey.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Ever since Caffe Trieste first opened its doors in 1956 in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, it’s been a Mecca for artists, writers and freethinkers to congregate. In a swirl of caffeine and hot, frothy beverages, beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac regularly gathered. Francis Ford Coppola spent months at a table in the back, clanking away on a yellow typewriter on the The Godfather screenplay.
But the heart behind the spot – credited with serving the first real cappuccino in San Francisco – beats inside the Italian immigrant who opened Caffe Trieste more than half a century ago, the spry 91-year-old Papa Gianni Giotta, who originally came to the states to pursue his dream of becoming an opera singer.
“[Trieste] has a village quality about it,” Gianni told The San Francisco Chronicle. “This is a very special place.”
A few months ago, Monterey became home to the institution’s sixth spot (there are also locations in Berkeley, Oakland and two more in San Fran). Among the fresh paint and hardwood floors of Trieste’s newest, evidence of its famed history lines the walls – black-and-white photos of Gianni having a laugh with Bill Cosby, and posing with late great tenor Luciano Pavarotti. It doesn’t come as a surprise to hear a documentary about Giotta will be released in 2012.
Soft lighting and a seemingly perpetual laid-back vibe provide further proof Trieste isn’t another hipster coffeehouse. It also helps that you can get a high-quality cup of classic Italian espresso for less than $2 (they’re $1.65). Their motto: “Brew each cup like it’s for you.” Weekly photog and coffee snob Nic Coury has become a regular and says the espresso is “consistently good.” Trieste also serves up more than 20 coffee concoctions (available hot or iced) from caffe latte ($3; $3.50 grande) to caffe mocha ($3.25; $3.75 grande). All Trieste’s coffees are freshly delivered from its production warehouse located in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco. Blends, varietals, decafs and flavored coffees are also all available for purchase online. The beans are Colombian, but unfortunately not fair-trade certified.
Trieste also offers a host of Italian-inspired dishes for lunch and dinner, plus a solid breakfast value: For $4.95, you get two eggs any style, home fries, salsa verde and a choice of toast (add $1.50 for choice of bacon, apple chicken sausage, Italian sausage patty or ham).
Four sandwich options (all served with homemade sweet potato chips) include the meatball ($8.50), served open-faced on a toasted French roll with marinara and melted mozzarella, and the portobello mushroom sandwich ($7.95), with a choice of cheese, spicy mayo, tomato, grilled onion and parsley on a focaccia roll. There are also several panini offerings including a build-your-own ($7.95) and a chicken panini ($7.95) with pesto, red bell peppers, tomato, mushroom and red onion.
For my first visit, I go for the meatball sandwich, which is overall underwhelming: Both the marinara sauce and the meatballs are underseasoned. However, redemption looms close by in the form of pizza. Trieste offers six tasty options, from asparagus with mozzarella, leeks and pancetta ($9.50) to chicken pesto with roasted chicken, pesto and portabello mushrooms ($10.95). I opt for a classic litmus test: a simple and refreshing margherita pie ($9). The layers of mozzarella, marinara sauce, tomato and fresh basil are expertly cooked on a crispy thin crust.
I also order the Mediterranean salad ($7.75) – greens, cucumber, olives, tomato, red onion, feta, olive oil and balsamic – which is sturdy and enough for two.
For more traditional Italian fare, there are six pasta selections, including fettuccine alfredo ($8.95) with grilled chicken and spinach and the timeless spaghetti marinara ($6.50).
If you’re not in the coffee mood, there are six beers on tap, 14 bottled, 10 wines by the bottle, including Starmont Cabernet Sauvignon ($44), and seven by the glass, including Hahn Pinot ($8).
Trieste’s assortment of pastries and cakes, which glow with sugar-fueled luminescence behind a glass counter, seem to get the most attention from folks walking in for the first time.
The baked goods hail from Primizie Foods Inc. Fine Gourmet Desserts in Hayward and the selection of about 10 are changed up weekly basis to keep the customers guessing (and salivating). The one item that is a constant presence, and consistently the most popular treat behind the glass, though, is the tiramisu ($4.95). The creamy symphony of mascarpone, cocoa and ladyfingers melts in your mouth after each bite. No chewing needed.
Caffe Trieste feels like more than a coffeehouse, like a living room away from home where creatives can read, work on their laptops or chat with a cup of espresso. Trieste’s Monterey incarnation may have never had poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti linger nor boast that an Oscar-winning film was penned within its walls, but who knows what kind of budding talents will percolate here?
CAFFE TRIESTE, 409 Alvarado St., Monterey • Mon-Thu 6:30am-10pm; Fri 7am-11pm; Sat 7am-10pm • 241-6064 • www.caffetriestemonterey.com