A taste of Italy in the United States. That’s what you get when you sit behind the wheel of a FIAT 500, and it’s also what you get when you step into the neighborhood known in many cities as “Little Italy.” When we’re feeling a bit homesick or just need to get our chicken saltimbocca fix, a city’s Little Italy neighborhood calls to us. We’ve developed a finely tuned ability to sniff out these hidden gems, and we figured, “Why not bring you along?”
We plan to search out these havens, tucked away across the country, and bring you along for the ride. Come spend a day with us and our FIAT 500 in our latest Little Italy destination: San Diego.
When most people think of San Diego, a few things come to mind—but no, we were not in San Diego for the weather, the palm trees, or the fish tacos. We had heard a rumor that tucked just off the shoreline was one of the most unique and historic Little Italy neighborhoods in the country. We knew that we needed to check it out for ourselves.
First of all, how can you go wrong when the western edge of San Diego’s Little Italy has a name like Grape Street? As soon as we arrived at the corner of Grape and India streets, we felt right at home. Green, white and red were everywhere we looked, and the sound of an accordion sailed high over the hum of people chatting on the numerous outdoor patios. Shopkeepers and restaurant owners were all making their final preparations for the lunch crowds, and our FIAT 500 was getting plenty of attention from passersby.
It was no mistake that we were here on a Saturday afternoon. Every Saturday in Little Italy
, the Mercato Farmers Market
welcomes more than 150 booths and vendors to line Date Street all the way down to Amici Park. As we strolled through the farmers market, we were greeted by the aptly named Smilin’ Jack. Jack was happy, funny, and a master at the one-man-band setup that he had arranged on the corner. He posed for pictures, took requests, and sang to every pretty woman who passed him by. Take a minute to look at the picture below. At this point, if Smilin’ Jack was welcoming you to the Mercato Farmers Market, wouldn’t you know that you were about to have a good time? We thought so too.
After walking, sampling, and smelling for six blocks, our anticipation for some of Little Italy’s food offerings was reaching a fever pitch. We were on the lookout for a restaurant that met three basic criteria – 1) a patio, 2) a view of the water (we were in San Diego after all, and 3) no frills, traditional Italian dishes. On our way back to India Street, we passed more street musicians and many four-legged friends who were out with their owners, enjoying the day. We were swiftly realizing why people had raved so passionately to us about this neighborhood. We quickly feel like we were in a world separate from the rest of downtown San Diego.
We sampled three restaurants, hoping to find a little bit for everyone.
Traditional Italian Fare – Zia’s Bistro
We were on the lookout for a restaurant with a patio, a view of the water (we were in San Diego, after all), and no-frills, traditional Italian dishes. If your criteria matches up with what we were looking for, then Zia’s Bistro
may be the perfect fit for you.
Although there was no ocean in sight, Zia’s outdoor seating is right next the pavillion that houses one of our favorite fountains, and it provided a great place to watch passersby as we kicked up our feet. We decided to order the vongole and were not disappointed when we tasted the clams. They became the star of our meal. One of the things that San Diego’s Little Italy has going for it is its proximity to the ocean and fresh seafood. If seafood is not your favorite, no worries—others around us were enjoying the imbottiti, which features eggplant wrapped around pasta with ricotta cheese and pesto.
Pizza – Napizza
allowed us to check a few things off our list. We wanted to see what San Diego’s Little Italy had to offer in terms of a fresh take on Italian cuisine, and we wanted to enjoy some of the pizza that we can’t seem to find at home. Thanks to a slow approach to preparation (72 hours must pass while their homemade dough rises) and a healthy obsession with quality ingredients, the pizza that comes out of their kitchen tastes like little else in the world. Locals were quick to point out that this was not simply pizza that we were enjoying; rather, it was pizza al taglio, a style that comes from Italian street food. Our choice? Truffle Porcini. The earthy-tasting mushrooms and the truffle cream coming together is a taste we may come back for…a few dozen times.
Hidden Gem Suggested by Locals – Pete’s Quality Meat
This is the kind of place we love. A unique address (1742 ½), a menu with only five items, and every other person that we talk to recommends it. We passed it a few times before finally finding it, tucked away on India Street. Pete’s is famous for its sandwiches, which is good, because it’s just about all they serve. For our money, the homemade Italian sausage is the way to go. They were grilling it when we walked in, and offered us a sample. This was no mistake; they knew that once we tried it, we were putty in their hands. One taste and we were sold. We even bought some to bring home with us, but it didn’t make it past dinnertime, when we were ready for more.
Is there a Little Italy that we should try next? Is there something that we missed here in San Diego? Let us know in the comments below.