If something seems fishy in San Diego, it's not the beach. It's Little Italy, the former hub of the world's once-leading tuna industry. In the '20s, the promise of sun and steady income convinced thousands of Italian families to relocate here. With the construction of the Interstate 5 cutting through the neighborhood and a rise in foreign competition, the big name tuna brands closed up shop, just as the rest of downtown was reopening for business. Making its revival in the 2000s, Little Italy received its landmark sign and progressed into a slice of Sicily. Bordered by Laurel Street on the north and bottoming out at Ash Street, Little Italy is a hotbed of tourism, officially signified by the existence of the neighborhood's own app, featuring guided walking tours and hotel suggestions. Despite its undeniably American influence, Little Italy gives a nod to two cultural standards: an overwhelming selection of hand-tossed pizza and house-made pasta, and a historically significant art scene whose decline in popularity left a vacuum that was filled with artisanal furniture shops.
Where India and Date streets meet, construction on the upcoming Piazza Famiglia puts the neighborhood's prime intersection in a bit of limbo. Still, it signifies the pinpoint between the area's most popular blocks. Gazing straight down Date there's a view of the San Diego Bay; a glance to the right finds the Little Italy sign and a look to the left lands on the downtown skyline. All along India there's an abundance of diners digging in at well-heeled eateries such as seafood-heavy Ironside, or partaking in pasta portions at Prepkitchen, Buon Appetito or Davanti Enoteca.
"It was the hot neighborhood. We used to get 200 people in here when there was a Kettner Nights event," says Perry L. Meyer, when asked about the heyday of the northern Little Italy art scene in the '90s and throughout the '00s. "There was so much going on and so many more businesses that were related to art, but rents went up and artists moved out. It's a vicious cycle." Still, Meyer stood strong. His Meyer Fine Art space (2400 Kettner Blvd.) is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and the congenial 68-year-old Meyer, with help from his wife Kathi, still has an infectious attitude when it comes to the work. "I love watching collections grow or getting people started on their own collection," Meyer says. "That's what I'm all about."
The whole rebranding of Northern Little Italy is kind of lame (NoLI, really?), but given a new abode and about five figures to blow, we know where weíd go for all our housewares needs. Yes, for three blocks on Kettner and India between Laurel and Hawthorne streets, discerning customers can find everything from a new bed to a mid-century armoire. Places such asIndia Street Antiques and Boomerang for Modern have been there for decades, but relative newcomers such as the custom carpenters at Bedford, the bedroom designers at AT HOM and the mid-century dealers at Homesteezhave secured the neighborhood's reputation as a go-to design and decorating destination. India Street Antiques even opened its own neighboring specialty store, Danish Modern San Diego, which is filled to the ceiling with vintage pieces. And yeah, we probably only could afford a vintage watering can from Architectural Salvage, but we'll still go to these stores just to sigh and dream of the day when we can have things this nice. Oh, and to pet those sweet pooches in front of Bedford.
TAKE ME TO THE CANDY SHOP
Mona Lisa Foods (2061 India St.) is like your grandmother: staunch in tradition, impervious to change, and whose idea of a reward is often very detrimental to your health. The popular market is also home to a bunch of rare items, including a gamut of mysterious candies located around the cash register. We decided to test the candies, which we've always been curious about but too afraid to try.
La Florentine Torrone. It's impossible to ignore these little boxes adorned with illustrations of Italian figures. Open them up, and you find foil-wrapped, super-sweet, lightly flavored nougat. The boxes are dope, but the excessive packaging seems to be overcompensating for the meh candies.
Lazzaroni. Cookies wrapped in thin, pastel-colored tissue paper. Mine was halfway open when I bought it. Certainly some food-safety violation going on. The cookies turned out to be pretty good biscotti, but official review TBD, depending on whether or not we die from eating it.
Caffarellino. This is the money candy. It's shaped like an ice cream cone but filled with whatever heaven is inside those Ferrero Rocher chocolate balls. Nears the line of being too intense, but nothing a little San Pellegrino can't wash away. Be prepared to be sugar-buzzed out of your gourd for the rest of the day.
· Gran Fondo
Sunday, April 10
· Mission Federal ArtWalk
Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1
· Taste of Little Italy
· Little Italy FESTA!
Sunday, Oct. 9
Joe Busalacchi—chef and restaurant owner"I can't get enough of Little Italy, but being the pioneer, that sort of just happened," says Joe Busalacchi, owner of four Italian restaurants on India Street, not to mention several others spread around San Diego like grated Parmesan. Moving here from Sicily at the age of eight, Busalacchi learned English at Washington Elementary School on State Street. Then he landed his first job as a chef on board the tuna boat Uncle Louie, where he cooked for 22 men before upgrading to his first restaurant, Busalacchi's (3707 Fifth Ave.). When he decided to open up Trattoria Fantastica (1735 India St.) in Little Italy, the neighborhood hadn't even earned its name yet. "It was interesting because 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock would come around, and there would be nobody around, but we felt it was going to come." Indeed, that neighborhood resurgence came. When he's out of the office he's back in the kitchen, testing the restaurants' recipes, including ones for Po Pazzo's transformation into Barbusa (1917 India St.), which will have a Mediterranean-inspired menu decked out in pastas with sea urchin and octopus. But Busalacchi's son, PJ, says his favorite dish banks on the basics—pasta, broccoli, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, an ingredient Busalacchi was raised on and couldn't cook without.
Catt White—Curator of the Little Italy Mercato
"I lived in Little Italy and we could do anything we wanted there without getting in our cars, except shop for our groceries," says Catt White, referring back to 2008. She is the only one who chooses the Mercato's weekly vendors, and she admits being picky about it. The Saturday Farmer's Market now spans five blocks and is the largest in the county. White says the surrounding businesses are on board, but the locals are a mixed bag. Picture post-Friday night when you're waking up to an Advil-resistant headache while people are shouting "four-twenty-sixteen" or they're cracking open a sea urchin and taking a selfie outside your window. But she says the market serves as a community quarters, softening the scrutiny, and the market's business has become everyone's business. "We know if (the vendor's) baby is sick, they're going to be out that week. And the whole market was rooting when the guy selling sauerkraut, his kid went to the national Little League thing," she says. "If you want to just grocery shop, it's way easier to just use the parking lot at Vons to go in and out, but people like to know where their food comes from."
Joe Scafidi—Bocce ball aficionado
91-year-old Joe Scafidi has been playing bocce ball in Amici Park, at the corner of State and Date streets, for nearly half his life, 40 years to be exact Everyone on the court quickly came to a consensus that he's the best of the bunch. Bocce ball, a game of strategy dating back to the Egyptians, challenges players to toss a set of balls, or bocce, as close to a marker as possible, making the team that gets the closest the winner. "You have to have good judgment to see where the other bocce are," says Scafidi. His words are stressed in Sicilian descent, which is where he emigrated from in 1975 to become the captain of 12 tuna boats. He says an average load would bring 20 to 50 tons of tuna, but that he would catch sets of over 200 tons, totaling in 450,000 to 500,000 tons per year, before environmentalists chased him and tuna companies like Starkist and Van Camp out of business. Despite being put out of a job, he hasn't considered moving out of San Diego. "I've been as far as Hawaii, Marcus Island, all the way to Peru, Chile and the other side of the Caribbean. I've been there too, but there's nowhere like the climate in San Diego."
HANGING OVER YOUR HEAD
Ever looked up at the ceiling of a Little Italy eatery and thought, "What the hell?" The design elements hanging overhead can trigger that reaction so we set out to collect those stories.
Filippi's (1747 India St.)
Every wooden beam inside Filippi's drips with Chianti bottles. General manager Danny (Filippi) Moceri says it dates back to the '50s when fishermen would order bottles of the wine from his grandparents while they waited for their orders. "They would tell my grandfather, we'll pay you when we come back from our big catch. So to keep track of them, the fishermen would drink the bottle of wine, put a nail on the wall, and they would sign it." Eventually it got out of hand, and his grandfather cut off the trade. Since then, the originals have been removed since their straw became a fire hazard, but now Chianti bottles from current customers hover above.
Kettner Exchange (2001 Kettner Blvd)
Kettner Exchange is a tribute to former congressman William Kettner, who brought the Navy to San Diego, inspiring related industries and igniting an economic boom. The restaurant's two levels were thematically designed to reference that surge in maritime and manmade materials. Hanging in the center of the double decker space is Tecture designer David Michael's wooden sculpture, which he says "was intended to be a type of bridge between the two, spanning between the levels, 'joining' the Lower Level (which is darker, heavier, a bit more masculine) to the Upper Level (lighter, airy, spacious and more on the feminine side) together."
Bracero Cocina de Raiz (1490 Kettner Blvd.)
Above the bottles and barstools is an art piece that resembles a farming tool and recognizes the oft-overlooked bracero migrant labor movement. "It's an homage to these men who worked their asses off 24-7 and were the foundation for a better life for their families," said artist Daniel Ruanova. "They helped shape California into what it is today and they don't get credit for that."