Second only to the historic Gaslamp Quarters in terms of the neighborhood tourists remember most about their visit to Downtown San Diego, Little Italy is perhaps the part of town where neighborliness blend the most seamlessly with commerce. Bordered by the airport, I-5, the high rises, and the bay, Little Italy is a neighborhood of colorful low-rises, pedestrian friendly streets, piazzas, and locally owned and kept shops and restaurants. Click here for a quick slide-show of the neighborhood.
The community was established mostly by Italian immigrants back in the 1920’s, and remains Downtown San Diego’s oldest continuous neighborhood business district. It’s main thoroughfare is India Street, which runs north-south just 2 blocks east from the waterfront embarcadero (the Maritime Museum where the Star of India and other historic ships are is located where Ash Street runs into the bay).
India Street is where you’ll find most of the restaurants and specialty shops that makes Little Italy famous. There are authentic neighborhood grocery and deli like Solunto’s or Mona Lisa (which is also one of the few truly authentic Italian restaurant in Downtown area). Lots of Italian theme restaurants ranging from franchises like Vincenzo Ristorante to pizzerias like Filippi’s Pizza Grotto to really ‘meat on hot bun Italian deli next door’ place like Pete’s Quality Meat.
India Street also houses many sitting piazzas in the area. The largest of these is Piazza Basilone at the southeast corner of India and Fir Street (where the chic boutiques are) is the most elaborated piazza with a fountain and a memorial for Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, a local WW II hero whose valor earned him the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, and other Little Italy residents who lost their lives in the line of duty. The whole stretch of India Street through Little Italy is well equipped with stainless steel chairs and plenty of trash bins (all with ‘Little Italy‘ sign on them). Most intersections are equipped with stop signs rather than traffic light (with the exceptions of Hawthorn and Laurel since they are the main routes people take to the airport).
The area of this neighborhood is small-ish, but there is always so much to see that you really can’t get bored with the place even if you drop in there all the time. East of India Street is Little Italy’s residential area where modern (and even some quirky) buildings exist in strange harmony with well kept Victorian Era wooden houses. The Our Lady of the Rosary Church at the southwest corner of Date and State streets is where most of the residents hang out at on Sundays. It is 83 years old now and has an interior that boasts some really wonderful frescos and stained glass works done by Fausto Tasca (you can take a virtual tour here).
Just diagonally across the intersection from Our Lady of the Rosary church is Amici Park with a lawn (shared with Washington Elementary School next door), Bocci ball courts, and a small concrete amphitheater where some local concerts and exhibitions are given. Date Street is closed on Saturdays from 9AM-1:30PM for Mercanto… a farmers’ market. A really diverse fair where you can buy food (raw and cooked), artworks, and locally made hand craft.
Little Italy is also known for its 1st Sundays of the month stickball tournaments (from February through June) where Bronx rules street baseball is played on Colombia Street between Ash and Cedar. The San Diego Knights stickball team also hosts stickball tournaments on Labor Day and Columbus Day weekends with teams from other cities.
Being so close to San Diego International Airport (Lindberg Field) means fabulous plane-spotting in this neighborhood. Keep looking north and you’ll see a commercial plane skirting the top of the buildings here every few minutes or so. If you are one of those who love having a jumbo jet fly low right over your head, the final approach of these planes goes right over Ivy Street much of the way from just east of 5th Avenue in Banker’s Hill to right around Curlew St or so. The planes intersect India Street somewhere between Juniper and Kalmia Streets just south of Laurel St (the photo of the Southwest jet flying right at the camera is from the corner of Ivy and Curlew/Union Sts).
There is much to love about the friendly atmosphere of the Little Italy neighborhood of Downtown San Diego. The next time you are in town and don’t know what to do with yourselves after a visit to the Maritime Museum or while waiting for a friend to arrive at the airport, why not drop in to one of Little Italy’s piazza and have a look around? It is probably the closest thing to a slice of Mediterranean Europe one can get without having to travel across a continent and an ocean to experience the real thing.
Some Upcoming Events in Little Italy:
25-26 April 2009: Artwalk San Diego is a street art festival with live concerts, paintings, and stuff on the streets. You can see a video clip of the 2008 event here.
17 May 2009: Festa Siciliana (16th Annual Sicilian Festival) street fair with 4 performance stages, music, dance, Italian food, and a costumed parade