San Diego may be best known for its gorgeous beaches, delicious tacos and world-renowned zoo, but it also has a rich Italian tradition. If you know where to look, experiencing this local flavor can be a highlight of your stay.
Unbeknownst to many visitors, San Diego has housed a thriving Little Italy neighborhood on the outskirts of town for almost one hundred years. In the early 20th century, nearly 6,000 Italian families moved to San Diego to work in its robust tuna industry. As fishing became less central to the city’s economy, the district declined until locals decided to revive the area in the 1990s. Now, during a stroll down India Street (the main drag), you’ll find a lively mix of Italian markets, art galleries and restaurants.
Little Italy is an excellent neighborhood for a night out or a day exploring with kids. When I was growing up in San Diego, my family occasionally stopped by one of the area’s red-sauce joints. I started spending more time in the neighborhood during high school, when I fell in love with photography and relished wandering through the art stores and galleries. Now, my favorite places include a mix of old haunts and new eateries.
Shop for fresh food first.
Unsurprisingly, Little Italy centers on food. The neighborhood hosts an excellent weekly farmer’s market known as the Little Italy Mercato on Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The market features more than 200 vendors along a quarter mile of Cedar Street. You’ll find everything here: fresh produce, flowers, seafood, prepared foods (panini, anyone?), specialty sauces, fresh-baked breads, live music and crafts. Locals flock here, and it can be quite a scene on sunny mornings.
Food-hall fans will recognize the Roma Urban Market. In the style of Eataly, Mario Batali’s New York City–based Italian food emporium, this neighborhood fixture specializes in prepared foods and Italian provisions. The entire family can enjoy pizzas, pastas, sub sandwiches, arancini and more. (Mom and Dad can order wine and craft beer, too.) Operating in southern California since 1953, the market also features a sandwich storefront adjacent to a courtyard set with tables, where you can enjoy your food al fresco.
Little Italy is home to an outpost of one of San Diego’s best coffee roasters, Bird Rock. Stop by and pick up beans to take home with you.
Work up an appetite over local art.
Growing up, one of my favorite events in San Diego was the Little Italy Art Walk. The two-day affair — traditionally scheduled for the last weekend in April — has grown to include more than 350 local artists. Galleries open their doors and live music, food vendors and art activities geared toward kids take over the streets. While Art Walk is a real treat, you can peruse the string of galleries on India Street and Kettner Boulevard any day of the week to view works as varied as bright tropical landscape paintings and thought-provoking photography.
When you’re done shopping, wander two blocks west to the Embarcadero and Waterfront Park. You’ll be treated to beautiful Spanish Revival architecture of the old county administration building, as well as public art, plenty of ships (old and new) and stunning views of San Diego Bay.
Settle in for a good meal.
Now it’s time to do what you really came to do: enjoy a delicious meal. Restaurants like Kettner Exchange and Born and Raised offer exciting modern takes on small plates and traditional steakhouse fare (respectively). And the downtown tasting room and kitchen of Ballast Point Brewing highlight some of San Diego’s best-known beers — like the Sculpin IPA (which comes in habanero, grapefruit and pineapple varieties) and the Victory at Sea imperial porter. Rooftop dining at Glass Door offers stunning views of the city and the bay, as well as brunch with bottomless bloody Mary cocktails and mimosas.
If you’re craving an old-school red-sauce joint, head to Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, a Little Italy staple that’s one of my family’s favorite spots. My parents used to go there on dates, and we almost always dine there when I’m in town. Our order never changes — garlic cheese bread with marinara sauce and a pepperoni pizza, half mushroom — but I hear the lasagna and veal scaloppini are excellent. There’s frequently a wait on weekends, but you won’t mind: the line winds through a storefront full of lust-worthy Italian provisions. When your table is ready, order a half or a full bottle of chianti. Once you finish, autograph the basket it comes in and it will join a collection of bottles hanging from the ceiling — an installation, of sorts, that gives the dining room much of its charm.
If you have room for a sweet treat, you can’t go wrong with baked goods from Extraordinary Desserts, where the decadent cakes are legendary. Get a slice of one of the elaborate, towering confections in the dining room; I’m partial to the macadamia caramel cheesecake and the delicious “torte misu.” You’ll be sure to leave satisfied — and with plenty of amore for one of San Diego’s most interesting and delicious neighborhoods.
Where to Stay:
Marriott Vacation Club PulseSM, San Diego