San Diego’s Little Italy: The pizza and piazzas are just like the real thing

July 10

Ask me where I’d like to vacation, and whatever the day or year, my answer will invariably be the same: anywhere in Italy.

A devoted Italophile without the means to travel overseas regularly, I feed my passion instead by seeking out Italian-centric neighborhoods in U.S. cities. How fortunate, then, am I to live just minutes from San Diego’s Little Italy, where Italian culture, heritage, religion and all things culinary intersect in a very walkable 48 square blocks east of San Diego Bay.

In the mood for pizza? I’ll bypass the long lines snaking out of the neighborhood’s mainstay, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (1747 India St., 619-232-5094, www.realcheesepizza.com), and head for Napizza (1702 India St., 619-696-0802, www.na-pizza.com) where I’ll grab a four-inch square piece of heaven — mounds of flavorful porcini mushrooms and truffle pâté resting on a base of fresh mozzarella. My fondness for carbs not yet sated, I satisfy my sweet tooth with a visit to Cafe Zucchero (1731 India St., 619-531-1731, www.cafezucchero.com) where I can munch on an assortment of almond biscotti and pignoli or, if I’m feeling really indulgent, savor a scoop or two of homemade pistachio gelato.

And if it’s a hearty Super Tuscan that I’m craving, I can rest my feet at Sogno di Vino (1607 India St., 619-531-8887, www.sognodivinosd.com), a wine bar that doubles as a restaurant, and sample some varietals.

Gastronomic pleasures aside, Little Italy’s slices of Old World charm can transport me, if only for a few moments, across the Atlantic to a bustling Italian town. My favorite time to stroll the neighborhood is any weekday morning or afternoon when, more often than not, I’ll catch snatches of conversation among a small group of men huddled on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes or cigars and speaking in animated Italian. At nightfall, the streets come alive as sidewalk cafes fill with diners. (Be forewarned: Parking can be a challenge.)

Former Little Italy resident Anthony Davi, whose company, Little Italy Tourism (760-736-1138, www.littleitalytours.com) leads Saturday morning walks through the neighborhood, promises, with a bit of hyperbole, that guests will “come away with us to another time and place, to the world of ‘once upon a time’ in the Italian quarter.”

A must-see landmark included in his tour is the 1920s-era Italian American church Our Lady of the Rosary (1668 State St., 619-234-4820, olrsd.org), with its stunning ceiling canvases, frescoes and vivid stained-glass windows.

At first glance, it may seem as though the mid- and high-rise housing complexes that have sprouted where aging warehouses, parking lots and homes once sat have erased the historic roots of this Italian immigrant community dating back to the late 1870s. But the new housing developments have in fact helped revive what is today a vibrant, authentic community that’s a mélange of the old — the more than half-century-old Filippi’s with its red-checkered tablecloths and squat Chianti bottles suspended from the ceiling — and hip newcomers like Ironside Fish & Oyster (1654 India St., 619-269-3033, www.ironsidefishandoyster.com) and Juniper & Ivy (2228 Kettner Blvd., 619-269-9036, www.juniperandivy.com), a buzz-worthy restaurant helmed by “Top Chef” celeb Richard Blais.

The boutiques, art galleries, home accessory stores, enotecas and eateries that now populate the district represent a remarkable recovery from the late 1950s and early ’60s, when one of the city’s main north-south freeways, Interstate 5, was constructed, bisecting the community and forcing the relocation of hundreds of families. Years later, the once-flourishing tuna fishing industry fell into decline, devastating Little Italy’s economic foundation.

Credit aggressive redevelopment and the Little Italy Association, a nonprofit neighborhood organization formed in 1996, with turning the area around. The local group pushed for the landmark Little Italy sign that spans the neighborhood’s spine, India Street, and created the lamppost banner program that pays homage to such famous Italians as Galileo, Michelangelo and Marconi.

It’s also responsible for Piazza Basilone (Fir and India streets), a pleasant gathering spot that doubles as a memorial to locals who lost their lives during the wars of the 20th century. Pick up a wedge of provolone and prosciutto at Mona Lisa deli (2061 India St., 619-239-5367, www.monalisalittleitaly.com) and have a picnic lunch in the square.

If you time your Little Italy visit well, you can experience one of the many festivals and special events that the association sponsors, such as weekly evening films shown during the summer at the amphitheater in Amici Park (West Date and State streets), Taste of Italy or the annual Little Italy Festa (Oct. 14 this year). Chalk-art painting, a bocce ball tournament, musical acts and cooking demos are among the highlights.

Although the heart of Little Italy is concentrated along India, Kettner Boulevard, one block over, is attracting more shops and restaurants and is home to a number of design and home furnishing stores.

Though not Italian-themed, the Saturday mercato (www.littleitalysd.com/mercato) is one of San Diego’s largest farmers markets, featuring some 150 vendors. I make frequent visits, if only to browse, listen to live music and of course wander the neighborhood.

Back to those vacation aspirations. I’m in fact headed to Italy this fall, but I know that the longing won’t vanish once I return home. No problem. Little Italy is just minutes away.

Weisberg is a staff writer covering the local hospitality and tourism industry for the U-T San Diego.

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