There are few more delicious ways to explore a city’s roots than by tasting your way through its enclaves, whether it’s North Beach in San Francisco or Little Italy, the trendy, restaurant-rich neighborhood in sunny San Diego.
Last year, Forbes magazine dubbed Little Italy one of the country’s top 10 hottest neighborhoods for millennials. It’s awfully appealing to non-millennials, too. The food scene alone is enough to make a foodie hop the next flight. But you’ll be hard-pressed to do this area in just one jaunt. A weekend doesn’t have enough mealtimes, for one thing — not when these 48 square blocks boast more than 70 restaurants, bars, breweries and cafes.
There’s Bolt Brewery and Ballast Point Brewing. Three “Top Chef”- helmed eateries — Pacific Standard, Herb and Wood and Juniper & Ivy. Old school pizzerias, new wave pasta houses, wine bars, seafood houses and divine delis. Did we mention the devilish doughnuts?
Little Italy has always been a bustling neighborhood. At one point, more than 6,000 Italian families lived and worked here, many in the fisheries that made San Diego king of the tuna world. But by the 1960s, some of that vibrancy had dimmed, first by the decline of the West Coast tuna trade, then by the rise of Highway 5. Freeway construction wiped out a third of the neighborhood.
The happy ending here — and the extremely tasty foray we’re enjoying, as we sashay from Ironside’s lobster rolls to Davanti Enoteca’s foccaccia — is thanks to a group of locals, who banded together 20 years ago to revive their neighborhood. The Little Italy Association of San Diego planted trees, hung banners, nurtured local businesses and spearheaded everything from the annual Festa — the largest Italian festival west of the Mississippi — to support for the neighborhood piazzas.
When it opens later this spring, the Piazza della Famiglia will be a grand, mixed-use, European-style promenade lined with shops, restaurants and apartments on West Date Street, between India and Columbia Streets. The plaza is designed to serve as the neighborhood’s heart — home to the weekly Little Italy Mercato farmers market, as well as celebrations, such as the Festa, which draws more than 120,000 visitors each year.
A block away, you’ll find the Piazza Basilone, where cafe chairs and tables surround a fountain crowned by a mosaic globe. Five more small piazzas, including the Piazza Pescatore, the Piazza Frankie Laine and the Piazza Costanza — political Midge, not Seinfeld’s George — are due to open over the next year.
We’d be tempted to stroll from piazza site to piazza site, were it not for two things — the big Piazza della Famiglia hasn’t opened yet, and our bellies are growling. We can smell garlic and basil wafting from the restaurants. Somewhere, there is coffee roasting. Our tastebuds have needs.
It’s early still, so we grab a latte from Heartsleeves, the little Alice in Wonderland-themed cafe tucked down a little alley and head out to explore. We stop into Vitreum, a little gift shop tucked in a colorful cottage, and hit a few more boutiques before concluding that our degree of caffeination has not yet reached optimal levels. It’s a perfect excuse to pop into Devil’s Dozen, where the nitro brew comes with churro bites ($3) and nutella-hazelnut doughnuts ($3.50).
Sugar buzzed and java jangled, we continue our perambulations, criss-crossing the neighborhood half a dozen times, like Jeffy from “Family Circus.” Call it the path of least efficiency — or maximum FitBit-edness. We’re just trying to get enough exercise to justify brunch at the chic Kettner Exchange, where the second floor dining room sports plush booths and a wood-paneled ceiling that arches high overhead. And chef Brian Redzikowski’s brunch menu ranges from eggs benedict with tenderbelly bacon and tomato confit ($13) to avocado-burrata toast ($12) and an addictive crispy chicken sandwich with arugula and chipotle aioli ($15).
This may not be quite what pedometer makers had in mind: Walk just enough multiple-thousand steps to justify the divine chowder ($10) and lobster rolls ($22) at Little Italy’s Ironside Fish & Oysters, or the sublime Foccacia di Recco ($21), a Ligurian flatbread spread with soft cow’s cheese and drizzled with honeycomb, at Davanti Enoteca. Eat and repeat 70 times.
But it’s working for us. Deliciously.
IF YOU GO
Heartsleeves Coffee: Open daily at 621 W. Fir St., San Diego; www.heartsleevescoffee.com.
Devil’s Dozen: Open daily at 2001 Kettner Blvd.; devils-dozen.com.
Kettner Exchange: Open for dinner daily, plus weekend brunch at 2001 Kettner Blvd.; www.kettnerexchange.com.
Ironside Fish & Oyster: Open daily for lunch and dinner at 1654 India St.; http://ironsidefishandoyster.com/
Davanti Enoteca: Open daily for lunch and dinner, plus weekend brunch at 1655 India St.; www.davantienoteca.com.