Savor San Diego’s Little Italy
Here’s what to eat, where to shop, and what to do
You still see the great, lined faces of old men sipping espresso at cafes in San Diego’s Little Italy ― guys overdressed for the weather who look like extras out of Cinema Paradiso.
But there’s another crowd too, of professionals who walk to jobs from this neighborhood on the edge of downtown, and designers who leave their live-work lofts to lunch at Pete’s Quality Meats or run along nearby San Diego Bay. Sometimes both, deadlines permitting.
Part Moonstruck, part Milano modern, Little Italy has emerged as one of the city’s most intriguing neighborhoods.
It’s both red-checked and high-tech ― a place where you can pick up fresh pappardelle at Assenti’s Pasta, then shop for the latest in cookware at Disegno Italiano.
October and September are ideal times to experience its two sides: at the neighborhood’s annual festa and at a gallery open house.
Since the mid-1990s, Little Italy has seen an influx of new housing. Colorful and sometimes boldly geometric, the buildings give the neighborhood a contemporary character, which is a big part of its appeal to residents and visitors alike – especially design buffs. Noted architect Rob Wellington Quigley’s mixed-use Beaumont Building on West Cedar Street, where he lives and works, is one of its modern landmarks.
A very different landmark is a block away. Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, built in 1925, remains the neighborhood’s heart.
“The tolling of its bells is a reminder of who we are,” says Tom Di Zinno, an officer with the Little Italy Association.
Considering that this was a working-class neighborhood, the church’s statuary, stained-glass windows, and the murals by Venetian painter Fausto Tasca are especially impressive. Di Zinno says that immigrant fishermen pledged a portion of their catch to pay for the church and help bring craftspeople over from Italy.
“The real language here was fishing,” Di Zinno says. “Despite the name, the neighborhood wasn’t just Italian. There were Mexican and Portuguese fishermen too.”
On one block, the fishermen’s homes have been turned into shops. Sloping toward the bay, Fir Street Cottages date to the 1930s and house Little Italy’s best selection of stores.
Despite the area’s rapid evolution, there are still places to retreat into the more leisurely pace of bygone times.
With its bocce courts and shaded sitting areas, Amici Park, at Date and Union Streets, was created for just that purpose. As part of an installation here by artist Nina Karavasiles, there’s an old Sicilian proverb embedded in a walkway: “The less things change, the more they remain the same.”
There’s no denying that. But Little Italy has managed to hold onto tradition even as it embraces a new era. And some residents are making sure the old ways will endure.
“A lot of the old Sicilian guys don’t bother with the new bocce courts at the park,” Di Zinno says. “They still just set up and play on the lawn by the school.”
Little Italy is north of downtown San Diego and west of I-5. India St. is its main drag. For information, contact the Little Italy Association (619/233-3898).
WHERE TO EAT
Assenti’s Pasta Outstanding selection of Italian groceries. INFO: Closed Sun; 2044 India St.; 619/239-5117.
Caffe Italia Sip an espresso and watch the neighborhood pass by. INFO: $; 1704 India; 619/234-6767.
Chi Chocolat Sample chocolate’s variety and quality with a flight of pieces at this cafe. INFO: $; closed Mon; 2021 India; 619/501-9215.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto The old-school survivor still serves the best pies. INFO: $; 1747 India; 619/232-5095.
Indigo Grill Arty decor reflects culinary influences ranging from Latin America to Alaska. INFO: $$$; 1536 India; 619/234-6802.
Pete’s Quality Meats Classic Italian sandwiches. INFO: $; closed Sun; 1742½ India; 619/234-1684.
WHERE TO SHOP
Che Bella Flowers, plants, and gifts. INFO: Closed Sun; 621½ W. Fir St.; 619/232-3193.
Che Bella Nido Modern yet soulful items for the home. INFO: Closed Sun-Mon; 611 W. Fir; 619/232-1111.
Disegno Italiano Contemporary furnishings and housewares with Italian flair. INFO: 1605 India; 619/515-0191.
WHAT TO DO
Kettner Nights The Art & Design District’s galleries hold an open house six times a year. INFO: Free.
Little Italy Precious Festa Celebrate Italian culture with traditional chalk art, music, food, and a stickball tournament. INFO: Oct 13-14; free; 619/233-3898.
Our Lady of the Rosary Parish An architectural gem with baroque interior details. INFO: State St. at Date St.; 619/234-4820.