San Diego is known for many things – the stunning waterfront dotted with sailboats, the buzzy Gaslamp district awake until all hours, the Trolleys that shuttle you from the historic Old Town to Balboa Park, or from the famous Zoo to end all Zoos and on to the sandy resort-like beaches of Coronado. It is, after all, America’s finest city! In the food arena fresh seafood, Mexican cuisine, and Craft Beer tempt the taste buds from every side. And Italian food. Wait, what? Did I type that correctly? Notable Italian food? Like, garlicky drenched in olive oil goodness with fresh baked bread and a creamy crunchy Cannoli for dessert kind of Italian food? Sì, amico mio!, Sì. Let me introduce you to the hidden gem of Little Italy San Diego est. 1920.
I have been visiting San Diego regularly for almost 6 years, to escape the desert summers, to be able to gaze upon the ocean in less than 7 hours in a car and less than an hour via Southwest’s direct flights from Tucson (yes, really), and, actually, yes, to visit Little Italy – one of my favorite places to stay, eat, and play when I am in the city. How does it compare in scale to New York City or Boston’s version? Per their website, larger – the largest in the US! Autentica, manageable, and with a few nods to Southern California mixed in along the way.
So the next time you visit San Diego, take a day or stay the night in Little Italy San Diego, and be sure to check out these tips for a bella vacanza.
Mangia!: Oh, the options are endless! Offering advice on where not to eat is probably easier. But let’s start with Italian food. There’s everything from that quick-serve fold/drip New York Style pizza that I was raised on (it might be just as good as what I remember from childhood), to the handmade, melt-in-your-mouth pasta from every restaurant lining India St. I actually have not had a bad meal in any Italian restaurant in that general area. So there’s that. If you can’t decide, the Little Italy Food Hall has something for everyone and I just recently had one of the best brisket tacos of my life at Not Not Taco. It was billed as the “special of the month” and called the July Taco. It was summer on a plate! brisket taco, perfectly textured, cooked, and a bit crispy with fantastic slaw on top and served with a side of watermelon. YUM! Also from the food hall, Mein St. Asian had a decent version of the very popular Taiwanese soup dumplings like I had in China called Xiao Long Bao.
But here is an outlier you might not think of. The BEST ramen of my life (yes, I have been to Japan) is found at the Little Italy gem called Underbelly. I mean, it’s not Italian but it’s still a noodle, right? Same same.
- Grocery Shop like an Italian. You will get as close as SoCal can take you to the actual Bel Paese by visiting some of the small Italian Grocery stores in Little Italy. Imports from every part of the country are available, as well as homemade items for takeaway (Cannoli, fresh bread, sandwiches). Even if you don’t buy, it’s fun to browse.
- People Watch: there are actual Italian people who live and frequent Little Italy. You’ll see old men sitting on the street corners arguing in Italian, or playing chess in the parks. Having been to Italy, I definitely do a double take here because it feels for a moment like I’m somewhere other than the US. If you don’t want to watch people, watch the planes land. Little Italy is in the direct landing flight path for San Diego’s airport, so you can hear them coming before you see them and when you DO see them they are literally right over the tops of the buildings. Fun!
- Drink: I recently discovered Pali Wine Co. in Anaheim and promptly joined their Wine Club. And then I realized that I had already been to one of their tasting rooms in Little Italy in San Diego! So now I go there every time I visit not just because I am a member, but because the wine is pretty awesome (try their Tower 15 series). Also, the San Diego location has an indoor/outdoor setting that allows you to be inside and under cover while still enjoying the open air breezes, and offers a second-level rooftop to sit and sip.
If you’re a beer connoisseur, some of the tastiest local Craft beers are brewed in San Diego and two of them have locations in Little Italy: Ballast Point and Bolt Brewery (est. in Fallbrook, CA). Both delicious!
- Go out at night. The Gaslamp is hopping with tourists, but the night scene in Little Italy feels a tad more local. One of my favorite places to frequent (day or night) is Nolita Hall https://www.nolitahall.com/ It has a really fab vibe and fantastic craft cocktails.
- Walk everywhere. The great thing about Little Italy is it’s less than a 20 minute walk from the Gaslamp District, a short walk to the waterfront which you can follow all the way to the Convention center, and then, when you’re tired of walking, you can rent a scooter, or buy into the hop on/hop off Trolley that stops in Little Italy and takes you to all the hot spots in the city and back again. Hooray for public transportation!
- Stay: my all time favorite, and I almost hesitate to tell you about it because it’s THAT good, hotel is La Pensione. It is in the heart of Little Italy, very reasonably priced, clean, renovated, attached to my favorite coffee spot (Caffe Italia) and even gives guests a free morning coffee and pastry in said coffee shop along with offering free luggage storage the day you check out. I pretty much try here first and only stay somewhere else if they are booked
- Park: parking can be quite expensive in the city (think $30 ish dollars a night), so be prepared for that. I don’t mind circling a few times to find a good deal, but will pay for the convenience of close hotel parking when it comes right down to it. But if you’re savvy, and are visiting over the weekend, street parking in Little Italy is free from 6pm Saturday until Monday morning at 8. Woot!
- Buy Local: The Mercato (Farmer’s Market) in Little Italy is Wednesdays from 9-1 and Saturdays from 8-2. It’s all the best of Southern California markets – fresh produce (of course), artisans and delicious food. Just be sure to bring your hats and sunscreen – San Diego sun can be brutal (even for desert dwellers).
Bonus: If you’re not into Farmer’s Markets, try showing up right at 4. The street parking that is blocked during the market opens up at 4, so you can score that above-mentioned free weekend parking a lot faster!
- Take the time to soak in the sights at Little Italy San Diego – there is a local historic Catholic Church, fun and fascinating facts about Italian culture and people proclaimed from every lamppost, and so much more. Go now.