The Big Family in Little Italy
Troy Johnson pulls up a seat for dinner with San Diego's iconic Italian family, the Busalacchis
Joe Busalacchi would like to invite you to his birthday party. All of you. He didn’t, technically. But I feel confident. That’s what Joe does. He invites yous.
On the outdoor grill at his gated Mission Hills home—with a three-point view of downtown, the airport runway, and, most critically, of Little Italy—lies a whole grouper, scored and slathered with salmoriglio sauce (anchovy, capers, garlic, shallots, oregano, parsley, lemon juice, fresh-squeezed orange, olive oil). He’d like to give you the cheeks, a delicacy for people who truly know and love fish. Since you’re not here, he gives it to me. That’s what Joe does. Joe gives the best parts to strangers. Has been for 42 years.
For example: Within 15 minutes of my being in his home for the very first time, he invites me for Christmas. Not a restaurant opening, or something that would benefit his business by having a writer publicize it. With unrestrained earnestness, Joe announces to his entire family that this stranger is invited to the holiday where they all wear pajamas. And no one bats an eye. Yes, they agree, the stranger should come to Christmas in his pajamas.
“The most important thing that you don’t get in a lot of restaurants now is the ‘Hi, how you doin,’ lemme buy you a glass of wine,’” says 61-year-old Joe, as he surveys the dozens of dishes assembled in his kitchen, wearing an apron emblazoned with a Picasso print. “You gotta make people feel like a million dollars. Restaurateurs now are doing so many covers and don’t have time. You should make a friend, then make a customer.”
I feel like a friend. Should I show up on Christmas morning, I have no doubt Joe would answer the door and insist I was late.
About a dozen Busalacchi specialties are being prepared for this family meal tonight, overseen by no fewer than six family members. Joe’s son Michael helps Cousin Nino monitor the squash blossoms, vibrating in hot oil like a Van Gogh painting of flowers. On another burner, Nonna’s Bolognese sauce lightly simmers (always for at least three hours). Joe’s other sons, PJ and Joey Jr., handle the hospitality, making sure cups are filled, introductions are made, and embarrassing stories are given properly mortifying light.
Everyone has brought a plate of food. A typical Busalacchi family meal consists of dishes made by between 20 and 25 Busalacchis. There is someone poking and prodding the spiedini, a Sicilian specialty of ground pork stuffed with bread crumbs, currants, prosciutto, and cheese (“We were the first in San Diego to serve these,” beams Joe’s nephew, Nino, who’s now the chef of their newest Little Italy restaurant, Barbusa). Pendant kitchen lights glint off the fresh orange juice squeezed on razor-thin slices of fennel for the finocchio salad. Sicilian meatballs the size of toddler fists bask in crushed tomatoes flecked with herbs.
An aunt produces a warm basket of her bread topped with sesame seeds, toasted brown as desert dusk. There are layers of zucchini upon layers of eggplant—“blanched first, so they don’t get so oily,” explains Joe. Sfingi, a gossamer Italian donut is made, tonight and always, by Joe’s sister, Anna. And, of course, there’s cannoli. In Italian, a night without cannoli is called a mistake.
As the dishes are finalized, men gather in the TV room to see a football team that used to play in San Diego and then left the city without ceremony, and are therefore watched with a mix of obligation, habit, and derision. In the corner, a door leads to a modest wine room filled with immodest and sentimental reds. Most of the women converse around a large table outside by the pool. It’s there that my girlfriend asks how they’ll know what time is proper and polite to move inside to eat. “Oh, you’ll know,” a woman laughs. Two minutes later, Nino opens the sliding glass door and yells, “LET’S EAT!” The table must be 30 feet long, an Uber-able distance from end to end. Actually, it’s two tables. When you’re a Busalacchi, you own two tables, just in case family happens. And family always happens. Gold crosses glint from almost every open shirt collar. Each seat is elaborately set with wine glasses, each with a specific purpose (an aperitif glass, a dinner-wine glass, a digestif glass). Italians, much like the French and Russians, have an extensive tool set for dinner. I’m sitting in the center. The room is full of Busalacchis. Nearly 20, for sure. There’s Joe’s three sons, PJ, Joey Jr., and Michael. Joe’s brother Frank, his sons. Then nephews and girlfriends and boyfriends. If you ever need to borrow an aunt or uncle for any aunting or uncling scenario, they’ve got extra. They’re all laughing and spilling family secrets and moaning over the fiori di zucca (those fried squash blossoms, stuffed with four cheeses and topped with apricot jam, one of the standouts at Barbusa).
Our family meal begins when Nonna—Joe’s 87-year-old mother, Christina—serves us the pasta course, as she always does. It’s her celebrated Bolognese, which is on the menu at their other Little Italy restaurant—appropriately named Nonna. Forks twirl and voices climb as a flood of family stories come. The table takes on the roar of the stock exchange floor, with less panic and more bonhomie.
After the pasta course, we take our plates, go to the kitchen, and load up. It’s impossible not to be obscene about this, with a tonnage of food that befits Thanksgivings and last meals. Impossible for everyone except Joey Jr., whose plate is virtually empty. “Oh yeah, that,” he says, a little sheepish. “I don’t really eat. I eat fried food and meat and cheeses, but that’s about it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a vegetable. My dad used to get so mad. He once held up a piece of arugula and said, ‘I swear to God if you eat this right now I’ll buy you a car!’ I didn’t eat it.” Before coming to dinner, I called a handful of restaurant people to ask about Joe. They all said the same thing—good restaurateur, and one funny guy. Real funny. People always mentioned the funny.
“C’mon, dad, show him the video!” begs Joey Jr., plate still empty.
Joe does not want to show the video. But soon the cajoling gets him. He stares down to the head of the table, his shoulders sulk, his face flushes. For the first time that night, he doesn’t look like a self-made restaurateur who helped build both Hillcrest and Little Italy into culinary destinations. He looks like a child with a Bic lighter and a bad idea.
“She’s gonna be so mad,” he says, trying to contain the laughter.
“She” is Nonna, dressed tonight in a proper blue sweater with a significant necklace and earrings.
Joey Jr. produces the infamous family video on his iPhone. His father turns his back to Nonna and reluctantly narrates. They’d finally gotten her a flip phone, he explains. She wanted to program it like a smartphone: press one for Joe, two for brother Frank, and so on. Joe, divining rod of funny, convinced her that these newfangled phones can only be programmed by loudly speaking the person’s name and then banging on a cooking pot with a wooden spoon. Joe had helpfully arranged the necessary materials for her on a kitchen table. The video shows this sweet woman almost screaming the names of her beloveds into the phone and banging with shocking authority on the pot. Like a gong.
When pot banging didn’t work, he convinced her—oh yeah oh yeah sorry Ma I forgot—she has to do it lying down. So the next video is her wearing a conservatively elegant nightgown in bed, loudly proclaiming the names of her grown children into the phone. The poor woman; the good sport. Her fault, though, for raising a Joe.
At this point, Nonna has caught wind that she’s the inspiration for the laughter. She casts a narrow side-eye that is loving and deadly. She quietly mutters something in Sicilian.
No one can hush a roomful of Sicilians like Nonna. With a look or a whisper. Throughout the night, the Busalacchi home is not merely loud, it is a leading cause of tinnitus. Men and women talk over each other, a constant rising and falling of voices. People yell to fill our wine glasses (Joe makes his own wine, called Due Matti). They yell to be heard. In a jumbo-sized family with jumbo-sized personalities, if you don’t yell you might as well be carpet. But when Nonna opens her mouth, the assembled generations zip it. The Busalacchi Earth stops spinning and will return to its regularly scheduled decibels after these important messages.
Someone—an uncle or a cousin or a brother or some stranger who walked in off the street and was welcomed—translates for me: “She said ‘Why you gotta talk about me?” Nonna shakes her head with the kind of annoyed permission parents give when their pride for their children outweighs the crime.
She should be proud. Joe had help from his brother, his ex-wife Lisa (who raised their sons so that Joe could raise the business, often feeding the three young’uns in the restaurants before opening hours), his cousins, aunts, uncles, and eventually his grown sons. But it was mostly Joe who built a restaurant empire that provided for a few generations. And he did it by learning to cook at Nonna’s side when he was knee high.
Nonna and her husband brought the family to San Diego from Sicily when Joe was eight years old. “When I’m telling you they had nothing,” explains PJ, “I mean nothing.”
At age 19, Joe was hired as the chef for one of San Diego’s tuna boats. At the time, the city’s tuna boats were the equivalent of floating Google campuses—more or less economic juggernauts. Usually, boat cooks were ad hoc parents who cleaned, did dishes, mopped, and grunted through the necessary and unwanted work. Joe was so good, his brother explains, the crew didn’t make him do any of that.
“I used to take about 50–60 cookbooks out fishing and read all day,” Joe explains. “All I had to do was make a call and they’d deliver me fish to our house. And they let me have access to the wine locker.”
He opened his first restaurant 35 years ago in La Mesa at Grossmont Center, Casanova’s Pizza. That same year, with his fishing contacts, he opened Busalacchi’s Fish Company. Two years later, in a converted Craftsman home in Hillcrest, he christened the restaurant that would make his name—Busalacchi’s on Fifth. The dishes, largely based on Nonna’s recipes and tweaked with Joe’s expanding talent, were a revelation. But it was bittersweet, because San Diego diners at the time weren’t adventurous. “I used to get so sick of people saying, ‘You make the best fucking lasagna in the world,’” Joe grouses. “I didn’t want to make the best fucking lasagna in the world.” He wanted to serve them Sicilian specialties like calamari, or octopus with lemon (which, at family dinners, is always served as a late-night snack and always, always cut by Uncle Frank Z.). “I couldn’t get fettuccine alfredo off the menu,” he grumbles.
Busalacchi’s on Fifth—which moved one block away and was renamed Busalacchi's A Modo Mio in 2011—lasted as an icon for 24 years. When the lease was up and the landlord’s new terms were too steep, Joe opted to close it. This became a recurring theme. When faced with a spike in rent, many owners often just pay it, because that particular patch of earth is the birthplace of so many emotions. Joe crunches the numbers. If those numbers don’t pencil out, he cuts bait and opens somewhere they do. He had already made inroads in Little Italy, opening Trattoria Fantastica and a bakery called Cafe Zucchero in 1994 and 1995, respectively. (Joe’s brother Frank went to Sicily, studied Italian pastry, and returned to help open Zucchero). At that time, the price per square foot in Little Italy was 99 cents. Now it’s eight dollars.
“Tell them about the bullet holes, Dad,” urges Joey Jr. as we sit outside after dinner, cigars aflame.
“It was a ghetto,” Joe admits. “Seven thirty, eight o’clock it was dead. I’d love to say I saw what Little Italy would become, but I had no idea. It was just so affordable.”
“We used to have to put things underneath the patio tables because the sidewalks slanted down toward the street,” Joey Jr. remembers.
“You could lay in the middle of India Street and never get hit by a car,” adds Nino. “The lease was a single piece of paper.”
Joe was one of the independent business owners who changed that, by taking a chance on Little Italy. Landlords wanted a Busalacchi joint. Joe’s food and jokes de vivre made people come, which made landlords’ buildings more valuable. They offered him rent for proverbial pennies. At one point he had six concepts in the neighborhood, from Grape Street to Cedar.
“I couldn’t say no,” he says.
Then Little Italy exploded. Craft & Commerce, Prepkitchen, Bencotto, Underbelly, Café Gratitude, Born & Raised, Ironside—all the hip restaurants arrived. Rent went up, way up. Between 2015 and 2017, he sold or reconcepted seven restaurants, five in Little Italy alone. From an outsider’s perspective, the Busalacchi starshine seemed a little dusty.
“It wasn’t that we lost it,” explains Joe. “We were done with the leases. I sold one of them to one of the managers who worked with me. I wanted to give him an opportunity. And so we concentrated on coming back, all hands on the one idea.”
That idea was Barbusa. The lease for his steakhouse restaurant, Po Pazzo, was up. He wanted out. His sons wouldn’t let him, at least not without a fight. PJ and Joey Jr. wanted to take Dad and Cousin Nino’s food and put it in a more modern setting. Ditch the white tablecloths, the formal service, the classic—and possibly outdated—earmarks of restaurant culture Joe made his name on.
“We fought with him over every little thing—decor, music, the food,” says PJ.
“I was coming from the old school with the linens and tiles or carpet,” says Joe in his defense. “They had all these big changes, of concrete floors and no linens, different-style chairs, mix-matched spoons. I was like, ‘Wow, what’s goin’ on here? You guys are crazy.’ But apparently they were right and I was wrong.”
It worked. Barbusa, which opened in 2016, is a hit, arguably Busalacchi’s biggest in a decade. PJ and Joey Jr. run the front of the house, trying their best to make strangers feel the same way I, a stranger, feel in their home tonight. Father Joe oversees it all. There are plans to open more Barbusas outside of Little Italy, maybe even in other cities.
“I’m still at the restaurants at six in the morning,” says Joe. “I still check the sauces and prep some. But I’m all over the place. I’m consulting with my kids, keeping them on their toes, changing menus, and handling the business end of it. You might see us at the edge of a table, fighting.”
It’s 42 years in the making, this Busalacchi thing. And the boy who worked on a tuna boat at age 19, who opened a pizza joint with a few bucks and a dream, is watching the second wave carry the name.
Near the end of the night, I look down at Nonna in her spot at the head of the table. She hasn’t moved. That is her place. The cook who started it all.
Cook Like a Busalacchi
San Diego’s first family of Italian food shares three hallmark recipes passed down through the generations, including Nonna’s famous Bolognese. Mangia!
Fiori di Zuccha
“Squash blossoms are an ingredient that intimidates many people but, in reality, are very easy to work with,” says Barbusa Executive Chef Nino Zizzo. They are a great example of a fresh dish that you can change up by experimenting with different stuffings according to your preference, and they will consistently impress your guests.”
Prep time: 10–15 minutes
Cook time: 2–4 minutes per blossom
6 squash blossoms
¼ cup mascarpone cheese (can substitute cream cheese)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
¼ cup mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
¼cup apricot preserves
½teaspoon Calabrian chilies, minced
½teaspoon serrano chilies, minced
Batter (can substitute store-bought tempura batter):
1 cup flour
¼ cup corn starch
Sparkling water to preference
“Spiedini are a traditional Italian dish historically reserved for holidays and special occasions,” Zizzo says. “Whether it’s Christmas, Easter, or a family member’s first communion or reconciliation, the whole family gets together and participates in the preparation.”
Prep time: 45 minutes–1 hour
Cook time: Varies according to preference
½ sweet onion
2 bunches of green onions
½ cup olive oil
⅛ pound salami
⅛ pound prosciutto cotto (ham)
⅛ pound pecorino Romano cheese
⅛ pound mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon black currants
1 teaspoon pine nuts
½cup tomato sauce
1 sprig Italian parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
2–2 ¼ pounds pork or veal, cut into 2 ounce medallions (4–5 medallions per skewer)
1 red onion, slivered
20 bay leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Nonna’s Bolognese Sauce
“Our Bolognese aims to instantly bring back the memories of walking into Nonna’s kitchen for Sunday family dinner,” Zizzo says. “The recipe comes directly from our grandmother and serves as a reminder of simpler times with a great meal and family.”
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
1 white onion
1 large carrot
2 stalks celery
¼ pound pancetta
3 garlic cloves
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 pound Italian pork sausage
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cube beef bouillon
24 ounces tomato paste
½ cup whole milk
1 gallon water
2 cups green English peas (sweet peas)