Note: I’m staying in the Litte Italy section of San Diego. Didn’t know San Diego had a Little Italy? Neither did I; that’s why I visited and wrote this story for The Huffington Post a while back. I decided to return on my RTW trip to see what else this pretty city had to offer. The story basically stands; but I have a new favorite gelato place.
Take any Little Italy in the Northeast or Midwest, add palm trees and T-shirt weather most of the time, and what do you have?
Little Italy in San Diego.
Yes, San Diego isn’t just that other southern California city known only to the uninitiated for its zoo, Sea World and the Chargers. America’s eighth-largest city has a gem that L.A. doesn’t: an authentic Little Italy that’s hotter with the locals than the almost-constant sunshine.
Sure, this neighborhood may not be as old or as large as some (though it’s bigger than New York’s and San Francisco’s combined). But what’s there is the real deal, and it’s well-worth a visit if you’re planning to be in Southern California and are homesick for the real thing.
The neighborhood traditions and pride are as rich as a great marinara. Unlike the Italian-Americans in various trades in the industrial U.S., those in San Diego came to the New World to fish. They began arriving in droves in the early 1900s, lured by tales of a haven on the Pacific blessed with a bountiful harbor, pretty beaches and warm weather.
While Cleveland is home to Chef Boyardee (named for a chef whose last name was, in fact, Boiardi), San Diego was America’s tuna capital and birthplace of “Chicken of the Sea” tuna. (The fishermen who coined the name said the catch reminded them of chicken.)
In later years the neighborhood fell into decay when the fishing industry declined and freeway construction literally tore the area apart. It remained that way for decades.
Determined gentrification turned things around. Today, Little Italy is hot — and not just in the restaurant kitchens. People of all ages are starting to move in — and back.
People like Deborah Scott, chef at the innovative Indigo Grill, and a relative newcomer from the East Coast. She’s charmed by the neighborhood’s quirky personality: “Our Little Italy has a more modern feel, even though there are many residents who are generations strong.”
Pieces of the past include a Roman Catholic church where the bells have been chiming on the hour for almost a century, and the Waterfront Bar — as popular a hangout now as it was back in the day. And the Little Italy Inn, a bed-and-breakfast, dates back to 1910.
Otherwise, the design is trendy traditional, Southern California-style. The bold, blue neon letters in the “Little Italy” sign pay tribute to the ocean. The sign’s mosaic tiles are an ode to two Italian traditions: boccie and cooking.
Murals evoking tradition adorn buildings and the interstate ramp. There are piazzas with fountains in pastels and earth tones. Banners honoring famous paisans like Pavarotti and DeNiro dress up the streets, while boccie is the big sport at Amici Park. And La Pensione, the name of a stylish and reasonably priced boutique hotel in the middle of everything, seems more Sorrento than San Diego.
Some of the original fishing bungalows are now boutiques and art galleries, blending in with sleek condos inhabited by the new influx. For standout souvenirs, try the Carol Gardyne Boutique for hand-painted silk scarves, clothing and wall decor; or make a fashion statement with duds from Vocabulary.
Down the street from the Indigo Grill, former fishermen are now serving seafood in restaurants that have been family-run for decades. Many of their patrons speak the same language they do: Italian. But ex-New Yorker Anthony Davi, a documentary filmmaker and tour guide of Sicilian descent, says some of these dialects are so old, they’re not even used in the Old Country anymore.
The couple-dozen eateries and specialty shops fit the bill. Three generations have been serving fans at Mona Lisa Italian Foods. Locals think the sandwiches are tops. And the extensive deli features several different kinds of salami and prosciutto. Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, dating back from 1950, offers more than a dozen versions of pizza, and is decent on basics like spaghetti and lasagna. It also has a deli section.
Around the time those places got their start, Italian immigrant Adriana Assenti arrived in San Diego. She made pasta by hand. Thirty years ago, her family opened Assenti’s Pasta, a store selling the same kind of fresh pasta to cook at home. Today, there are dozens of selections. Don’t despair if your choice won’t survive the trip home. Assenti’s pastas are served in restaurants around the city. And there are other non-perishable specialty items for sale.
Buon Appetito is also a popular place for lunch and dinner.
Caffe Italia offers Italian coffee and espresso made from imported beans. The homemade gelato at Pappalecco and Sicilian desserts at Cafe Zucchero can hold their own. But after much taste-testing, I have to say the best gelato in San Diego isn’t in Little Italy. It’s at Chocolat in Hillcrest, a few miles away. (**See upcoming post about Gelato in the City.)
Pick some fresh produce from the Mercato — the farmers’ market — held every Saturday; a favorite with chef Deborah Scott. It’s also a great place for every other kind of food; and an even-better place to people-watch.
And every October is Festa time. It’s a giant block party; one of the nation’s largest Italian-American festivals.
So come. Just bring your appetite and sunglasses.