As one of the oldest and most iconic historical areas of the city, San Diego’s Little Italy has come a long way. Once a humble fishing community populated by Italian immigrants, it has grown into one of the most interesting San Diego neighborhoods.
San Diego’s Little Italy covers over 48 square-blocks, making it the largest Little Italy in the US. And our Little Italy is ranked the top Little Italy neighborhood in the nation thanks to the leadership of the non-profit organization, the Little Italy Association — the only district management of its kind in any cultural neighborhood in the United States.
Today, Little Italy in San Diego is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors come in tour groups, to wander or to dine in the many fantastic restaurants in San Diego’s Little Italy. They come to celebrate their own Italian heritage or to celebrate the heritage of those who call Little Italy home.
In this post, I share some secrets about Little Italy along with some fun facts that you may not know about this popular San Diego attraction. These are the things to look for during your next visit.
1. The Hidden Ring in Sidewalk on India Street
Right outside Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, next to the painted electrical box on India Street, try to spot the ring that’s imprinted in the sidewalk.
After you find it, stop into Filippi’s, which opened as a deli grocery in the 1950s and is now a staple for pizza fans around the city.
2. The Love at First Sight Tile
Step into Café Zucchero on India Street and take a glance on the floor in front of the registry to see the engraved love at first sight tile.
It was installed with permission from the owners of Café Zucchero by Anthony Napoli to mark the spot where he first met his wife Sara Wilensky in 2003.
3. Recipe Tables at Amici Park
Take a blank sheet of paper and a crayon to Amici Park to get a recipe rubbing or two. Around the park, you’ll find sculptures of tables with red and white checkered tablecloths that are actually glass mosaics.
On each table, there are sculptures of plates of food — like stuffed artichokes and marinara sauce — and next to each sculpture is a plaque with the recipe in raised lettering. The installation is called “A Recipe For Friendship” and was created by Nina Karavasiles in 2001.
4. San Diego Macaroni Factory
One of the secrets about Little Italy that I like to share is that history can be found right underfoot. Just outside of Hyde Edwards Salon, where the historic San Diego Macaroni Factory stood, is a piece of original sidewalk that marked the location of this Little Italy business.
The factory is long gone, but the stamp itself is a designated San Diego historical landmark.
5. Antique Sausage Maker
At Mimmo’s Italian Village, right on its front patio, look for the large original sausage stuffer that Mimmo used to make the family’s sausage.
He and his brother opened the Italian Sausage Co. in 1968 and then Italian Village in 1969, and from there the family business grew into a chain of stores.
6. San Diego Firehouse Museum
In July of 2015, the building that once was home to Little Italy Fire Station No. 6 celebrated 100 years and earned historic status.
It was the first station in downtown San Diego, and today is a museum where visitors can see fire fighting equipment and memorabilia from the 1800s — including La Jolla’s very first fire engine.
7. Mama Filippi’s House
One of the most loved pizza spots in all of San Diego, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, is the original storefront for this famous pizzeria and just behind the storefront is where Mama Filippi lived.
8. The Oldest House in the Hood
One of my favorite secrets about Little Italy is that the oldest house in the neighborhood — the A.W. Pray House, built in 1888 — is now a wine bar called M Winehouse.
It’s a tiny and adorable Gothic Victorian that has been granted historical status by the city. Stop by, check it out, and enjoy a glass of wine.
9. Waterfront Bar
The Waterfront Bar tavern may be the oldest in San Diego. Originally the water came right up to the bar, and this was a popular place for Italian boat captains and tuna fishermen to meet after work.
10. Our Lady of the Rosary Church Mural
The church of Little Italy was founded by Father Rabagliati, and you can find his image there.
One of the secrets about Little Italy is that his face is actually included in one of the nationally recognized murals.
Hint: It’s on the left side, near the altar.
11. Bigger Little Italy?
Before 1972, San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood stretched all the way to Balboa Park.
That’s when the I-5 freeway development separated the neighborhood and displaced thousands of Italian families.
12. Secret Dining Room at Davanti Enoteca
Ask for Table 80. You have to have at least 8–10 friends to do so, but if it’s available, you’ll get to enjoy your own personal hideaway in the restaurant’s secret dining room.
If you’re looking for a table for 2, however, ask to be seated on the patio. There are twinkling fairy lights in the branches of the overhanging olive branches, and you’ll swear you’re back in the old country.
13. Little Italy Landmark Sign
The Little Italy sign was constructed to pay tribute to the immigrants who created this vibrant neighborhood.
Take a look at the mosaic tile work on each side of the street because it tells the story about how this neighborhood is tied to the bay, the church, and the Italian homeland.
14. Trees are planted along the sidewalks approximately 10 walking strides apart
This is intended to soften the feel of the urban neighborhood and create a nice canopy of shade and color over the sidewalk.
15. Trees and flowers are expertly chosen to mirror the seasons
Have you ever noticed the falling leaves from the deciduous trees in Little Italy around September, the tulips in the spring, or poinsettias in December?
The Little Italy Association’s ornamental landscapers make sure to create a feeling of seasonality in the community by changing out flowers and foliage each month.
16. Watch your step for Italian sayings, recipes, and proverbs
From Amici Park to India Street along W. Date Street, bronze plaques with red and white checked borders showcase Italian proverbs, quotes, recipes, food trivia, and more.
The plaques were designed to lead people to the park.
17. Stories of Little Italy’s past are immortalized in granite
When strolling through Little Italy, don’t just stop and smell the roses, stop and read the rich history of Little Italy and the families that helped mold it into what you see today.
18. Pay attention to the lights
White is Little Italy’s signature strand color, but they do change color on occasion. For instance, multicolor lights appear during the holiday season and red lights sparkle in February for Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month.
19. Take a seat… it’s intentional
Little Italy purposefully has dozens of outdoor seating areas with chairs, tables, and umbrellas, encouraging residents and visitors to sit, enjoy their cappuccino, and take a few deep breaths as they relax and unwind.
When deciding on seating options, the Little Italy Association opted for chairs over benches so people could move seating and gather together wherever they wanted to.
20. It’s the perfect place for exercise
Little Italy has a marked one-mile walking loop right in the middle of the neighborhood that does not cross any major intersections.
It’s perfect for a guided exploration of this bellisimo San Diego neighborhood by the sea!
21. History can be in the palm of your hand
Be sure to download the “San Diego’s Little Italy” mobile app, available on the iTunes Store and Google Play. Using audio, video, augmented reality, and games, the app takes users on an engaging walking tour. It’s one of the best secrets about Little Italy.
22. Relax in the Piazzas
The fact that there are multiple piazzas isn’t one of the secrets about Little Italy, but why they’re here is. In Italy, the piazza has been the center of public life for hundreds of years, and members of the Little Italy Association have worked hard to bring piazzas to San Diego’s Little Italy.
These spaces are closed to car traffic and host concerts, cultural events, farmers’ markets, and other gatherings. They’re also the perfect people-watching spots.
What do you love about San Diego’s Little Italy?
Top photo courtesy of Little Italy Association.
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