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Plus One: Joe and Lisa Busalacchi

Talking with San Diego's interesting twosomes


Residence: Mission Hills
Together: 35 years
Their story: I was looking for the yellow shoes. I’ve seen Joe Busalacchi around Little Italy sporting banana-hued shoes that match his bright yellow Ferrari. But on a recent rainy-afternoon tour through the construction site of his family’s newest restaurant, A Modo Mio, his accessories are much more industrial: sweatshirt, blueprints rolled up under one arm, a pencil behind his ear. Then “the boss” — Joe’s wife of 30 years, Lisa — joins us, with all kinds of style: black boots, layered sweaters, a wrist full of bangles, a hot-pink BlackBerry that buzzes and twitches several times during our tour.

After 20-plus years in the restaurant business, Lisa recently launched a new career as a real estate agent. But it’s clear she still pulls the strings in the family’s eatery empire, which includes Zia’s Bistro, Po Pazzo and Café Zucchero, among others on India Street.
Joe and Lisa met 35 years ago as teenagers at an all-ages club in La Mesa, when Joe was playing wingman to a friend who wanted to dance with Lisa’s friend. After graduating high school (he from San Diego High School, she from Crawford), the couple married five years later in a multidenominational ceremony — Lisa is Jewish and grew up attending Tifereth Synagogue in San Carlos; Joe is Catholic. They started their first restaurant not long after, and the family flagship, Busalacchi’s on Fifth, became a fine-dining institution in San Diego, as anyone who ever celebrated an anniversary or special occasion knows well.

After 25 years, Bussalachi’s closed last year to make room for A Modo Mio (“my way” in Italia), being constructed from the ground up with a large outdoor patio, lots of greenery, strung lights and a pizza oven. Joe promises a seasonal menu, “the kind I’ve always wanted to have.” No strawberries in the winter, no ice cream (no freezers at all in the building), plus ­sauces and entrées that change weekly, even daily, depending on which produce and protein are most fresh. They plan to make their own pasta and bread. And Joey Jr. (the youngest of the couple’s three children) is running the show.

During the tour, Joey Jr. hovers in the background as Joe Sr. and Lisa (but mainly Joe) talk about life and food and their 35-year relationship.

“We fight a lot,” cracks Lisa with an irreverent eye roll.

“But she’s the boss. She’s the center of our family,” says Joe.

“I need a reporter around more often,” she replies. And the timelessly tense, loving, real, back-and-forth bickering of their three-decade marriage continues from there.

The Busalacchis have had their share of challenges, the most difficult being a family member's battle with breast cancer.
“Things happen in life,” says Joe, “and it just makes you realize how important it is to band together and stay together as a family, despite the little things and little fights that seem tough.”

The pair look forward to a fresh new year, passing along a new restaurant, concept and menu to their son and their hungry San Diego following. And diehard fans needn’t fret. The new menu will contain a few old favorites, too: the same garlic bread, pesto sauce and tiramisu as the original Busalacchi’s. And, we assume, the same yellow Ferrari parked out front.


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