IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT in Little Italy. Throngs of people, most fashionably dressed couples, spill out of doorways onto the sidewalks, waiting for tables at the trendy restaurants that line both sides of India Street between Beech and Grape streets. “They said it would be half an hour, but I’ve already been waiting 50 minutes,” fumes one woman, who says she and her boyfriend, San Diego residents for eight years, normally go to dinner in La Jolla or Rancho Bernardo. “But I heard this is the new hot spot,” she says, “and we had to come check it out.” She’s right. The fire was kindled through a series of, well, fortunate events. For starters, it took Little Italy, ripped apart by the construction of Interstate 5 in the early 1960s, about two decades to win back its heart. A merchants’ association was formed, annual events like ArtWalk and Festa sprang up, stick-ball returned to the streets, and the courts near Washington Elementary School became the weekend staging ground for bocce ball matches.
Then came downtown redevelopment, which in recent years pushed east from the Gaslamp Quarter to create what is now known as East Village. At the same time, a northwestern campaign was mounted into the streets of Little Italy. Over the past decade, colorful condominium projects have been built, many overlooking San Diego Bay and what was once the center of San Diego’s Italian-American fishing community.
With gentrification came galleries, boutiques and restaurants—lots and lots of restaurants, most with an Italian gastronomical bent. Zagarella’s Restaurant and Mimmo’s Italian Village came in 1993, followed by Trattoria Fantastica in 1994, Café Zucchero in 1996, Vincenzo Ristorante Italiano and Indigo Grill in 2001, Buon Appetito in 2003 and Po Pazzo last year. And the stage was set for San Diego’s newest, hottest dining mecca—one served exclusively by homegrown culinary talent. Some of the top names in San Diego restaurant circles have hung their shingles in Little Italy. The Cohn Restaurant Group, known for Dakota Grill & Spirits, Kemo Sabe and Blue Point Coastal Cuisine, among others, is in partnership in Indigo Grill with chef Deborah Scott. Indigo Grill offers diners Scott’s tantalizing take on Pacific Rim cuisine.
Then there’s Joe Busalacchi, who opened his first Little Italy restaurant, Trattoria Fantastica, 11 years ago to serve hearty, basic food from his native Sicily. Since then, he’s done so well he’s opened two more restaurants, Café Zucchero and Po Pazzo. Café Zucchero is a casual bistro with light entrées and a wide assortment of pastries and sweets, including the Cassata Sicilian (“the cake of Sicily”), a blend of marzipan, sponge cake, ricotta and fruit. Po Pazzo is an elegant Italian steakhouse with an extensive international wine list.
This month, Busalacchi is slated to open a fourth Little Italy spot, Crudo, in a 10,000- square-foot building on the corner of Grape and India.
“We’re going to have a lounge and serve Italian sushi with a Chinese flair, like P.F. Chang–type food,” says Busalacchi, whose partners in the new venture include Mike Viscuso, who runs the popular Gaslamp Quarter clubs On Broadway, E Street Alley and Deco’s. “In Sicily, where I’m from, there’s a lot of fish, even raw fish, and there’s a place in Milano that serves Italian sushi, with oils and garlic. That’s what I want to re-create here.
“The funny thing is, when I first moved here, I made my own lease,” says Busalacchi, who came to San Diego from Italy in 1966, when he was 9, and opened his first restaurant, Busalacchi’s in Hillcrest, in 1984. “The guy said, ‘Nobody’s paying me here, so you tell me what you want to pay per square foot, and I’ll draw up the lease.’ That’s how bad it was. Everybody thought I was nuts—‘What the hell do you want to go here for?’ It was dark; there was nothing here. Nobody knew about Little Italy.” Jan Montell, manager of Trattoria Fantastica, agrees. Right before the restaurant opened, she recalls, she and Busalacchi “literally stood in the middle of the street, picking the paint color. You could do that, because there was hardly any traffic.” Today, Busalacchi reports that Saturdaynight waits of 90 minutes or more are not uncommon at his Little Italy restaurants, and with each new eatery opening, business only gets better.
DANIELA CANIGLIA, who opened Buon Appetito in June 2003 with her husband, Salvatore, and partner Antonio Mastelone (of Arrivederci fame), is another happy Little Italy restaurateur.
“We had owned our other restaurant, Trattoria I Trulli, in Encinitas for about five years, and were ready for a second one,” she says. “We had heard Little Italy had a lot of building going on, and we figured it had the potential to be a great spot for a new restaurant.”
The Caniglias’ hunch proved correct. “This is definitely a downtown hot spot,” Daniela says. “They cleaned it all up, and now you see all these beautiful buildings worth a lot of money. Gosh, it used to be parking lots and crack houses, but now it’s beautiful.”
Since its opening two years ago, Buon Appetito has generated a succession of praisefilled reviews for its stylish décor—lots of brick and copper, and colorful paintings blanketing the saffron-colored walls—as well as its warm customer service and freshly prepared food (the filetto al Gorgonzola comes highly recommended).
Both Busalacchi and Caniglia say they draw locals as well as tourists. “We’re getting a lot of tourists because Little Italy has become a local landmark, like the Gaslamp Quarter,” Busalacchi says. “People come from the East, they want to see what Little Italy is all about.” At the same time, the residential building boom has created a growing base of affluent young professionals who love the urban flair of downtown and welcome a place they can walk to.
“It’s a real little ’hood, a little borough,” Caniglia says, noting that this month she and her husband plan to open a wine bar, Sogno DiVino, right next door to Buon Appetito. Little Italy’s feeding frenzy is such that even the community’s oldest restaurant, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, typically enjoys lines to the end of the block on weekend nights.
Open since 1950—before the freeway came and the fishermen left—Filippi’s is an anachronism. In front is an old-time “cash and carry” Italian market, with crates of salt cod, barrels of Sicilian olives and salamis of all thicknesses and lengths. In the back is one of San Diego’s most cherished Italian restaurants, still decorated with red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths and candles set in Chianti bottles wrapped in straw. “Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of people from places like La Jolla,” Busalacchi says. “And they always say, ‘God, I didn’t know Little Italy was like this.’ The streets and sidewalks have gotten bigger, there’s food everywhere, and you don’t have to pay $20 to park your car.”
The following all serve Italian cuisine unless otherwise noted.
Buon Appetito, 1609 India Street, 619-238-9880
Café Italia, 1704 India Street, 619-234-6767
Café Zucchero, 1731 India Street, 619-531-1731
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, 1747 India Street, 619-232-1346
Indigo Grill, 1536 India Street, 619-234-6802 (Pacific Rim)
Mimmo’s Italian Village, 1743 India Street, 619-239-3710
Po Pazzo, 1917 India Street, 619-238-1917
Princess Pub & Grille, 1665 India Street, 619-702-3021 (British)
Puerto La Boca, 2660 India Street, 619-234-4900 (Argentinean)
Trattoria Fantastica, 1735 India Street, 619-234-1735
Vincenzo Ristorante Italiano, 1702 India Street, 619-702-6181
Voyage, 1845 India Street, 619-234-1344 (French-Asian fusion)
Zagarella’s Restaurant, 1655 India Street, 619-236-8764