Once the “Tuna Capital of the World,” Little Italy San Diego is now home to some of the best Italian restaurants, markets, shops, and festivals in America.
Little Italy San Diego is the heart of the city’s downtown. The streets are packed with trendy restaurants, bars, cafes, and grocery stores, many with an Italian flavor. Beautiful Italy-inspired Piazzas – which honor prominent Californians of Italian heritage – make the area one of the most pedestrian-friendly public districts in America. Locals argue that San Diego’s Little Italy is at the top of the country’s list of Italian Neighborhoods.
One such native is Sal Zizzo. A retired pro soccer player and 2018 Major League Soccer Cup Champion, Zizzo, grew up in Little Italy San Diego, where his mother’s family owns some of the area’s most iconic restaurants. We spoke to him about what makes the community unique. “A lot of people don’t know, or even think, that San Diego would have such a big, fun, and popular Little Italy,” Zizzo says. “I’ve been to New York’s Little Italy and it’s cool and traditional, but it’s a different vibe out here.”
HISTORY OF LITTLE ITALY SAN DIEGO
Little Italy San Diego is located downtown between the waterfront and Interstate 405, having been settled in the early 1920s by Italian fishermen. According to the Little Italy Association of San Diego, it was mostly Sicilian immigrants who chose to inhabit the area just a few blocks from waters filled with tuna. The proximity to the bay and the influx of tuna made the neighborhood ideal for fishermen. In a short time, San Diego transformed into the “Tuna Capital of the World.” As the enclave diversified, Little Italy San Diego has become a vibrant place for dining and nightlife, while staying true to the Italian community that shaped the area.
EAT AND DRINK
Zizzo may be biased in saying Barbusa is his favorite restaurant in Little Italy San Diego. That’s because his uncle, Joe Busalacchi, along with his sons, are the team behind this modern Sicilian eatery. With one of the best bar scenes in the city, it’s known for handcrafted Italian cocktails and Southern Italian wines. “It’s a place you feel like everyone wants to be,” Zizzo jokes. “Even on a Thursday night, the bar is fully packed and it's difficult to get a table; luckily I have connections.”
In 2017, the Busalacchi family opened Nonna, a cozy spot offering down-home Italian cooking in the space previously occupied by their original Little Italy restaurant, Trattoria Fantastica, which opened in 1995. Nonna is partially utilized as Café Zucchero, where espresso, cappuccino, and trademark cannoli are served. Later in the day, the space transitions into a popular dinner destination, where menu items include Italian comfort plates such as arancini (Sicilian rice balls), Pollo alla chef (chicken breast layered with prosciutto & eggplant, mozzarella, topped with a cream sauce, broccolini), and tortelloni funghi (cheese tortelloni, crispy Prosciutto, Mushrooms, Truffle Oil, Cream).
Filippi's Pizza Grotto has been serving San Diego since 1950. Today, there are now 16 locations across the city. Filippi’s is known for their baked-to-perfection pizza by the pie, iconic tomato sauce, and generous portions while doubling as a market for imported Italian goods.
Princess Pub is an English pub in the heart of Little Italy San Diego, and the premier place to watch soccer in the city. While most of the local Italian bars and restaurants draw big crowds for major international soccer games, you can also pull up a stool and pair a pint with what the Princess calls “the best fish and chips in town.”
Mona Lisa Italian Foods, a two-in-one restaurant/deli in its third generation of family management, opened its Little Italy location in 1973. Known for its pizza, towering lasagna, and selection of assorted Italian deli sandwiches, it’s a hallmark of the neighborhood. “Mona Lisa is one of the oldest places in Little Italy,” Zizzo says, noting that the establishment is owned by another relative of his, the Brunetto family. “It’s a boutique grocery store, they don’t quite advertise it as a sandwich place but that’s what people in San Diego know it as.”
ITALIAN MARKETS IN LITTLE ITALY SAN DIEGO
You can grab fresh pasta at Assenti’s, a family-owned and operated shop that specializes in fresh, homemade pasta. At The Market by Buon Appetito, you can find imported Italian products, seasonal produce, natural meats, and wines.
EXPERIENCE LITTLE ITALY SAN DIEGO
Piazza Giannini was constructed in 2018 to honor Italian American and Californian, Amadeo Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy, which became Bank of America. The 500-square-foot public piazza sits on the corner of India and W. Cedar Streets. Visitors can pack a panino for lunch and grab a seat while admiring the Amadeo Giannini sculpture by Gregory Reade.
Created in November of 2017, the Piazza Pescatore celebrates the tuna industry that brought wide recognition to Little Italy San Diego with a bronze statue and classic mosaic tile work depicting a fisherman celebrating a fresh catch. “The little piazzas make it really safe for all of the foot traffic in the area,” Zizzo says. “You can hardly drive your car down there.”
Farmer’s markets, live music, beautiful views of San Diego Bay, and a stunning tiled fountain, highlight the 10,000-square-foot Piazza Della Famiglia.
The Amici House is home to The Convivio Society for Italian Humanities, a nonprofit organization that promotes Italian arts, culture, and heritage locally. The house was once the residence of the famous Sicilian-born, Antonino Giacalone, who was considered the city’s greatest fisherman. Originally located on W. Date Street, between Columbia and India Streets, the Little Italy Association moved the house to its current location at Amici Park in 2014.
The Amici Park Amphitheater hosts the Little Italy Film Festival. The Little Italy Association and Cinema Little Italy also screen Italian films outdoors on the weekends.
THE LEGACY OF LITTLE ITALY SAN DIEGO
On October 8, 2000, the Little Italy Landmark Sign was dedicated and lit at the 7th Annual Little Italy Festa. Today, San Diego’s Little Italy spans almost 50 blocks long. The Little Italy Association of San Diego meets monthly to ensure that the community continues to promote and celebrate Italian American culture.
“Little Italy in San Diego is the top spot,” Zizzo says. “The neighborhood has been slightly commercialized, but there’s still the original flair that doesn’t make it feel like it’s overdone.”
To learn more about Little Italy San Diego, click here!
Matt Caputo is the Editorial Director for America Domani. His journalism career began in 2003, and since then his byline has appeared in The New York Times, New York Daily News, Men’s Journal, Connecticut Magazine, The Hockey News, Bleacher Report, The Village Voice, and Maxim. He is also a former editor for SLAM magazine and The Rockaway Wave, a 130-year-old newspaper in Rockaway Beach, New York.