Beyond the palm-fringed beach boardwalks of the coast, San Diego’s character is defined by its eclectic neighborhoods, residents, and way of life. At the heart of the sprawling city’s cultural menagerie is Little Italy, a neighborhood that crosses cultural boundaries offers a range of arts and activities, and is politely redefining the stereotype of a Southern California coastal city.
A walk down India Street on any given day guarantees at least one sighting of an old man sipping an espresso, the smells of fresh pasta, and buzzing energy emitted off the start-ups and small businesses that call Little Italy home. Open-air piazzas with water fountains and seating invite visitors to enjoy the sunshine. Grocery stores, cafes, art galleries are easily walkable, creating a tight-knit and unique community that’s seemingly rare in San Diego.
A History of Little Italy
San Diego, by nature, is a port town. The city found its initial triumph as the center of the world’s tuna industry. Hard work, decent pay, and the promise of success in America attracted hundreds of Portuguese and Italian immigrants to try their hand at fishing. At one time, more than 6,000 Italian families called San Diego home – namely, Little Italy – because of its proximity to the bay. Italian-style fishing boats and canneries lined the waterfront where tuna was plentiful.
The draw of the fishing industry also became its downfall. Without proper limitations and laws, several non-migratory fish species became locally extinct due to overfishing, limiting the quality of fish stock and how much work was available. Additionally, dolphins were becoming tangled in nets off San Diego, which resulted in the creation of the ‘Dolphin Safe’ label and further decimation of the industry. Then, in 1950, the city began construction on the 5 freeway, which introduced pollution, excess noise, and irregular traffic, further dismantling the humble roots of Little Italy. The construction of the 5 shrunk Little Italy to 1/3 of its original size.
Regardless, Little Italy remained, albeit shrinking as families traveled in search of other opportunities and San Diego grew. What used to be canning factories and industrial spaces attracted artists, designers, and creatives to set up shop. A reinvigoration of interest in the area inspired development and significant investment and transformed Little Italy into an urban hub. Regardless, Little Italy remains a cultural center – thanks to organizations like the Italian Community Center of San Diego and the Little Italy Association that prioritize maintaining the community’s integrity amid gentrification. Spanning over 38 square-blocks, Little Italy is recognized as the largest Italian community in the U.S. and remains a popular tourist destination.
Dining in Little Italy
One of Little Italy’s biggest draws is the cuisine. Hailed as San Diego’s most innovative and exciting places to eat, there’s a lot to explore and taste. Aside from handmade delicacies and long-standing traditions, Little Italy boasts a handful of innovative restaurants and the renowned Saturday Morning Farmers Market. Every weekend, stands of local produce, carefully arranged flowers, and food stands dapple Little Italy’s landscape, inviting visitors to take their time exploring and tasting the city.
Many of the restaurants are staples to the community like Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (established 1950), Mona Lisa Restaurant (1956), and Assenti’s Pasta (1981). Other restaurants, like Malaysian hot spot Aux Epices and The Butcher’s Daughter, offer slightly-less Italian options. Kettner Boulevard, lovingly known as ‘Top Chef Alley,’ is a collection of unique dining experiences elevating the community’s culinary game, like Herb & Wood and Juniper & Ivy. Spots like the Waterfront Tavern, established in 1933, still draw a crowd with its history, a diverse choice of drinks, and cuisine.
Drinks in Little Italy
Then, there’s the nightlife – or daytime, bar scene. A mix between hip Hillcrest and cosmopolitan downtown, Little Italy embodies experienced-based watering holes. From Crafts & Commerce, to Bar One, to Queenstown Public House, drink options are aplenty. A walk down Little Italy can take you to the iconic Ballast Point Brewing or the high-end M. Winehouse. We recommend a classic bar crawl so you can experience the variety of tastes and people that the community attracts.
Little Italy Arts & Culture
During the springtime, over 300 fine artists show and sell their work at ArtWalk, an annual festival celebrating creativity and expression. The event, which started in 1984, attracts locals, tourists, and art buyers with the collective goal of encouraging the admiration of original artwork for everyone. There’s live music, art activities, and food galore. It’s the time where Little Italy truly comes to life and celebrates its rich culture, history, and future.
It wouldn’t be Little Italy without a similar festival to celebrate food. In June, neighborhood restaurants partake in the Taste of Little Italy, a festival that allows visitors to sample dishes from over 30 restaurants via a Taste Passport. The festival provides an opportunity to walk down the flower and tree-lined streets while eating your way through the city. Other festivals include May’s Sicilian Festival, which celebrated Silician culture, and the Little Italy Festa, the second-largest Italian festival outside of New York.
Things to do in Little Italy
Part of Little Italy’s charm is the small details embedded throughout the neighborhood. The Piazza Basilone invites visitors to sip a cold beverage, read a book, or simply observe the world go by. Piazza Della Famiglia, a 10,000-square-foot plaza between India and Columbia Street, serves as a compass and central gathering area for visitors exploring the neighborhood. Down the street is the Our Lady of Rosary Church, a traditional Italian worship space with stained glass windows, unique architecture, and beautiful paintings. While small and modest, it tastefully represents the role of faith and worship in Italian culture. Back in the early 1900s, the church also housed a school.
Then, there’s the shopping – or ogling – of fine goods. Storefronts full of clothing, jewelry, and craft items line the streets. Eclectic home items can be found Architectural Salvage. Stylish clothing can be found at Vocabulary Boutique and Rosa Mariposa.
Housing in Little Italy
In a city of over 1.4 million, finding suitable housing in San Diego can be seemingly difficult. Over the past decade, Little Italy has been growing – not just in the community, but in housing options. There’s anything from quaint homes on the outskirts, to luxury apartments, to living spaces that embody the community in their design. With median home values at just under 500k and a population of approximately 3,000, Little Italy is still accessible and somewhat uncrowded.
Most apartment buildings in Little Italy tailor towards the movers and shakers. You’ll find a range of well-designed and intentional spaces that encourage community involvement. Most living spaces offer fitness centers, are pet-friendly, and boast a killer location. The trick is finding that space that just feels right. Oh – and all apartments have garages for your vehicles. Some stand out options include:
A luxury high-rise community in Little Italy that exemplifies a seamless living space to neighborhood relationship. Just within minutes, one can leave their home and step onto the streets of Little Italy.
- Mid-century modern design
- Community amenities
- Top of the line fitness center
- Private outdoor spaces to enjoy the California sunshine
A distinctive apartment building that epitomizes downtown living. With gathering spaces and state-of-the-art amenities, Current is, well, current.
- Expansive social spaces
- Resident Club
- Gourmet Demonstration Center
- Modern Home Amenities
Luxury apartments that emphasize the little details. Valentina does a beautiful job of creating a space that feels like a getaway through the design, feel, and layout of the building.
- Pool House & Parlour
- Sky Terrace
- Fitness & Yoga
- Parking Garage
- Resident Coffee Bar
Chic spaces with Italian-inspired design and sensibilities. This space offers bay views, easy access to the neighborhood and a community feel.
- Fitness Club + Pool
- Pet-Friendly Amenities
- Certified Green Point Rated Homes
Benefits of Living in Little Italy
There’s a certain energy in the community. Perhaps it’s because Little Italy has been named as one of the ‘Top Cities for Millennials’ by Forbes for its low rent, unemployment rates, and crime, as well as livability. According to Forbes, San Diego (read: Little Italy), was also recognized as one of the best cities to start a new business. After all, there is a collection of start-ups, coworking centers, and collective community spaces that encourage collaboration. Then, there’s the walkability. Because of Little Italy’s size and location, it’s easy to walk or bike just about anywhere. Taking a day or afternoon trip to the coast, trails, or Balboa Park is as easy as jumping on I-5.
The beauty of Little Italy is due to its history and its people. As a multicultural community with a vibrant nightlife, it’s truly historic. As San Diego continues to grow and evolve, Little Italy is sure to stay true to its roots…at least in some capacity. With abundant and high-end housing options like Ariel, and a slew of activities any night of the week, we look forward to sharing a dish of pasta – or even a glass of wine.