Little Italy

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Travel Issue: June 2015
Group Mid-Level
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Live like a local in San Diego’s hip, historic neighborhood. Plus: Excursions to two bonus ‘hoods.

Like many Arizonans – or “Zonies,” as our California compatriots not-so-charmingly call us – I grew up visiting the San Diego area on family vacations. My dad rented cottages in Carlsbad a few years in a row; other years we stayed at family-friendly hotels in San Diego and visited its signature attractions: SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, the U.S.S. Midway, et al. There’s something to be said for hitting the big, touristy draws – they’re popular for a reason. But now that I’m a full-grown Zonie (sigh) with no children of my own, it seemed like the perfect time to explore parts unknown in our paradisiacal vacation city. I wanted to feel less like a tourist and more like a local. Enter Little Italy.

Like some of the best neighborhoods in Phoenix, San Diego’s Little Italy has a quirky backstory. From the 19th century through the 1970s, it was a cozy ethnic enclave where Italian immigrants built the boats and ran the canneries that fueled the United States’ tuna industry. In fact, back in the day, San Diego proudly identified as the “tuna capital” of the U.S. The decline of the local fishing industry in the 1980s led to an economic downturn, and much of the neighborhood fell into disrepair. Revitalization efforts began in earnest in 1996 and the area has since blossomed into a fun, funky haven of art galleries, mixed-use buildings, historical homes, retail shops, a design district and San Diego’s most buzzy restaurant scene. It packs a powerful punch of la dolce vita in its 48-square-block area. I wasn’t there long before I embraced my fantasies of Italian heritage and fancied myself a San Diegan – if only for a long weekend.

Stay
If you truly want to make like a local in Little Italy, the best place to stay is Hotel Vyvant (505 W. Grape St., 619-230-1600, hotelvyvant.com), a boutique hotel in a restored historical building from 1910. It’s just a few blocks away from Little Italy’s main thoroughfares India Street and Kettner Boulevard and is in walking distance of everything you’ll want to see and do in the neighborhood – a good thing, because parking in this hilly ‘hood can be difficult, especially for Phoenicians accustomed to such luxuries as flat parking lots and abundant metered parking. The hotel has no lot, but the sweet staffers helped me find parking on a nearby street. Hotel Vyvant’s front desk staff were like fairy godparents throughout my stay – Denise went over my itinerary with me, highlighting her favorites and adding more; Conor gave me foolproof directions to restaurants and shops; Bekah gave me the low-down on HV’s free breakfast spread of local goodies (including wonderful coffee from Dark Horse Coffee Roasters and granola from Safari Crunch – more on that later) and their weekend happy hour, with free local beer, wine, hummus and charcuterie. Each room is also equipped with a guest guide with staff recommendations on everything from the best places for happy hour to best ways to spend a Sunday in SD. Also included: The Urbanist, a handy guide to shopping, dining and services in the city, complete with a color-coded map and brief descriptions of each restaurant. Put it in your bag before you head out – you’ll use it.  

Touristy time-out: If being in the urban mix isn’t your bag and you’d prefer a beachy resort vibe, hop in the car for a 20-minute ride to nautical neighborhood Shelter Island’s Kona Kai Resort Spa & Marina (1551 Shelter Island Dr., 619-221-8000, resortkonakai.com). A Mai Tai at Kona Kai’s Vessel restaurant’s ship-wheel-like bar made me feel like I was in Hawaii, and breakfast overlooking the marina was a tranquil way to start the day before returning to the activity of the city.

Underbelly ramen and sous-vide brisket buns at Underbelly

Eat & Drink
It goes without saying that Little Italy is an incredible place to mangia. Italian restaurants line every street here, from old-school delis and ristorantes like Mona Lisa Italian Foods 2061 India St., monalisalittleitaly.com, 619-234-4893, to laid-back pizza shacks like Landini’s Pizzeria (1827 India St., 619-238-3502, landinispizzeria.com) to upscale fine dining like Bencotto (750 W. Fir St., 619-450-4786, lovebencotto.com). You obviously can’t go wrong with Italian, but I was surprised by the diversity and quality of the neighborhood’s non-Italian enterprises. Underbelly (750 W. Fir St., 619-269-4626, godblessunderbelly.com) is a nouveau ramen shop with a new sister location in North Park (see sidebar). The ramen, sous-vide brisket buns and shrimp gyoza were so delicious I visited both locations during my trip. An insider tip: Pick the steaming ramen bowl up from the server’s tray rather than waiting for them to hand it to you (they won’t) and do not ask for a spoon – they don’t have any. Slurp is the word, so tip your bowl to your lips and get into it.

takeout from Landini’s Pizzeria

For fresh fish and creative craft cocktails, your best bets are Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar 1654 India St., 619-269-3033, ironsidefishandoyster.com and Top Chef legend Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy (2228 Kettner Blvd., 619-269-9036, juniperandivy.com). Both are Little Italy’s hottest new see-and-be-seen restaurants, but with a twist: The food and drinks are even better than the people-watching. Ironside’s lobster roll with brown butter and crispy fried shallots nearly put me into a crustacean coma of delight; the cocktails I ordered (the Division Bell, with mezcal, aperol, lime and maraschino liqueur; and the Ramos Gin Fizz, with gin, lime, lemon cream, simple syrup and egg whites) pushed me over the edge. Juniper & Ivy’s Alaskan halibut with orange gazpacho, sofrito radish salad and California farro paired perfectly with the Soltera (tequila, aloe liqueur, lime, cucumber and mint) and the Well’s Bells (vodka, pineapple, soda water, pena honey and mint). I have a pathological distaste for eggs in any form, but Juniper & Ivy’s deconstructed deviled eggs won even me over, with a macaron-like egg white meringue cradling a creamy quail egg yolk mousse and cured ham. If all deviled eggs tasted like this, my holiday plates would look a lot different.  

Touristy time-out: To get a crash course in the fine foods of Little Italy, schedule a Little Italy Pizza Tour ($44.95 per person) or a hands-on cooking class ($59.95 per person) where you can learn to make Italian delicacies (a recent class showcased homemade ravioli and sauces), feast on your assignment and take the recipes home. To book, visit littleitalytours.com or call 760-736-1138.

Explore
I spent much of my time in Little Italy wandering from shop to shop and art gallery to art gallery. Love & Aesthetics (621 W. Fir St., 619-354-8441, loveandaesthetics.com) is a cute boutique with a flair for the macabre – imagine Phoenix’s Frances, but with more anatomical art work and creepy X-ray prints. Artelexia (2400 Kettner Blvd., 619-544-1011, artelexia.com) is an Arizona girl’s dream – an art gallery and boutique dedicated to Mexican art, furniture, clothing, crafts and tchotchkes. Across the street from Artelexia is Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (2295 Kettner Blvd., 858-551-1707, birdrockcoffee.com), which was named the National Micro-Roaster of the Year in 2012 by Roast magazine. Bird Rock’s cortado and a nippy breeze were the perfect accompaniments to an afternoon reading break. For coffee closer to the heart of Little Italy, Caffe Italia (1704 India St., 619-234-6767, caffeitalialittleitaly.com) is a tiny spot always bustling with people waiting in line for Lavazza coffee and espresso and Italian pastries.  

flowers at Little Italy’s MercatoOn Saturdays, the whole neighborhood flocks to the Little Italy Mercato (littleitalysd.com/mercato), the farmers’ market to rule all farmers’ markets. More than 150 booths line Cedar Street from Front Street to Kettner Boulevard from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., selling everything from flowers and California avocados to fresh oysters and made-to-order Thai food. On my trip to the Mercato, I was singularly focused. My mission: Procure some of the amazing Safari Crunch granola (safaricrunch.com) Hotel Vyvant provides for its guests each morning. After wandering up and down the city blocks like a crazed stalker, I finally found Curtis Moore, the affable, ivory-haired genius behind the best granola I’ve ever tasted. We chatted about his Arizona clientele and his goal of getting Safari Crunch into AJ’s Fine Foods. I left, victorious, with two bags of Nutty Njala ($7 each) and Moore’s business card so I can order more when I run out. AJ’s, are you listening?  

Despite opening just last year, the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (740 N. Harbor Dr., thdocksidemarket.com) has an arm extended to the past. Every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., fishers bring their fresh catches of the day (albacore tuna, box crabs, sea urchin, octopus and more) for an open-air market at the pier. It’s a sweet homage to Little Italy’s tuna-industry history, and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you’re in the Little Italy of the late 1800s, with the salty sea air mingling with the briny scent of fresh seafood and the chatter of fishers and market-goers. There are worse places to live like a local.

Touristy time-out: Learn more about the history and hidden landmarks of Little Italy by taking the Little Italy Historical Tour Adventure ($25 per person, littleitalytours.com). The guided tour features live narration through wireless headsets and includes, of course, a Sicilian pastry and Italian coffee.

Bonus ‘Hoods
Little Italy is charming and enveloping on its own, and you could easily spend a long weekend getting lost in the great shops and eating in the fabulous restaurants. If you feel the need to explore more, though, these nearby neighborhoods are great for dining, shopping and more.

Greg Hess at Mike Hess Brewing’s North Park brewery

North Park
A quirkier, slightly younger and more hipster sister ‘hood to Little Italy, North Park is only a 10-minute drive away. Locals congregate at Caffe Calabria (3933 30th St., caffecalabria.com) for Italian espresso, pastries, panini and pizza. Waypoint Public (3794 30th St., 619-255-8778, waypointpublic.com) is a great spot for California-inflected upscale pub grub, including San Diego IPA-battered fish and chips with grilled lemon. Speaking of beer, breweries populate San Diego like Starbucks locations in Seattle – there’s at least one on almost every street. The best in North Park: Mike Hess Brewing (3812 Grim Ave., 619-255-7136, mikehessbrewing.com), a family operation with a sturdy cast of regular beers (my favorite was the Grazias Vienna Cream Ale, a tribute to the Hess family’s Austrian ancestors) as well as seasonal favorites and experimental options. Sales and distribution manager Greg Hess gave me a tour and told me the North Park brewery/tasting room is housed in what was once a Christian bookstore. Amen to its conversion.

Ships at the Maritime Museum of San DiegoThe Embarcadero/Seaport Village
Hit the touristy spots if you want – the U.S.S. Midway is legitimately wondrous, and the new Maritime Museum of San Diego is a fun way to while away a few hours – but then get serious about local living. The hip new Puesto at the Headquarters at Seaport (789 W. Harbor Dr., 619-233-8880, eatpuesto.com) is a temple to fresh, Baja-inspired Mexican food. I chatted with a San Diego couple sitting at the table next to mine and they said it’s their top spot for upscale street tacos, strong craft cocktails and chips with a flight of nuanced salsas. I’m still dreaming about the pistachio-serrano one. Shopping at Seaport skews more touristy, but the stretch of beach bordering the complex makes your California dreaming feel like reality.