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Spicing Up Little Italy

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Soon after moving here, my friend the East Coast snob made his first foray into San Diego’s Little Italy for lunch. “Well,” he said with a sniff, surveying the block-long stretch of India Street restaurants, “it’s a very Little Italy, isn’t it?”

Well, yes, it is. And no, it’s not.

In fact, in square blocks, San Diego’s Little Italy is bigger than San Francisco’s, St. Louis’ and New York’s combined. And that’s after having its heart bisected by Interstate 5. That happened more than 40 years ago—when San Diegans called it the Crosstown Freeway. But for the natives of Little Italy, the pain is still acute. Ask anyone who lived or worked here before the freeway came, and they’ll tell you it was a disaster for the neighborhood.

“I have roots here, and roots here,” says Rose Cresci, pointing first to the floor beneath her feet, then at her assisted-auburn hair. “The worst thing for all of us is when the freeway went in. It devastated this neighborhood. The freeway took our homes. Many of the old families moved to Hillcrest and Mission Hills, Point Loma, La Jolla.

“But,” she quickly adds, “I’m ecstatic about the comeback of Little Italy.”

Rose is standing in the center of The Gargoyle, the newest incarnation of the family grocery where she worked as a child some seven decades ago. Today, it’s a combination art gallery/café, operated by her youngest son, Dino. He’s the fourth generation of the family to run a business here. His niece, Jennifer Morrison, who works alongside him, is fifth generation. Rose, too, still works here—part-time.

“My great-grandparents, Angelo and Emanuela DeLuca, came to Little Italy in the early 1900s,” Dino says. “Their daughter, Julia, married Emilio Giolzetti, and their daughter, Rose, married my father, Sal Cresci.

“My family once owned all four corners here, at Fir and India. Every generation has worked this property,” he says. “So something inside of me told me I should do this.”

What Dino has done is transform the old family grocery—for a time it was leased out as a tool-and-die shop—into The Gargoyle, a mod arts-and-crafts gallery and cafe. A snapshot in the the café shows a group of rakish-looking chaps, posed team style, with the inscription “Warff Rats—1940 champs.” A baseball team photo?

“Well, no,” says Rose, “they didn’t play baseball. The Warff Rats were the 1940 champs, though. Dice champions. They played dice behind the drugstore,” she says, pointing kitty-corner across India and Fir to where Bay City Drugs—her father’s drugstore—once stood.

Behind The Gargoyle, climbing the south side of Fir Street, is a row of small homes where the Cresci forebears once lived. As part of his commitment to the revival of Little Italy, Dino Cresci launched his own redevelopment project on Fir, transforming the tiny houses into upscale design and fashion boutiques—including Villino Galleria (gifts, interior design), Carol Gardyne’s (hand-painted silks) and Tracy and Kerry McReynolds’ Sorella (clothing).

Shops like these, and restaurants like Trattoria Fantastica and Café Zucchero—opened in recent years by Joe Busalacchi and his family—are essential to Little Italy’s comeback. In the years between the mid-’50s and the early ’90s, the neighborhood shops were mostly devoured by a string of brake-and-muffler shops, salvage companies and car-rental agencies. But the tide is shifting again.

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