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Home / Neighborhood / San Diego / Spend Mother’s Day in Little Italy San Diego

Spend Mother’s Day in Little Italy San Diego

by May Ruiz
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Looking for something more fun and adventurous to do on Mother’s Day? Make it a destination event and drive down to Little Italy in San Diego! Better yet, stay for the weekend to acquaint yourself with this extraordinary place and enjoy everything it has to offer.

San Diego’s Little Italy has such a fascinating and rich history – it was at one time the center of the world’s tuna industry. Chris Gomez, district manager of the San Diego Little Italy Association, recounts, “Little Italy was originally known as Middletown because it was north of downtown San Diego, south of Mission Hills and Hillcrest, east of San Diego International Airport, and west of Bankers Hill. It was settled back in 1920 when Italian immigrants from San Francisco and New York who came to live here created a small community that was close to the waterfront that allowed them to build their economic strengths through fishing. It was the hub of the fishing industry in the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s before all the fishing moved down to Baja. The Italian fishermen would go out to the San Diego Bay and catch tuna and bring them back to packing houses and they would distribute them from there. The Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee Tuna companies started in Little Italy.”

Photo courtesy of San Diego Little Italy Association

“But just as we’re celebrating Little Italy’s heritage, what it has become now is not necessarily all Italian – we also focus on the diversity of the community. We have restaurants that have opened from Mexico and this is the first location they’ve opened in the United States, like Fisher’s. We have several dining places that offer very eclectic cuisines and foodie experience,” Gomez clarifies.

While other Little Italies in the United States have declined because of the growth of other adjacent ethnic neighborhoods, San Diego’s Little Italy has remained a vibrant symbol of the remarkable contributions Italians have made to this country. Since the 1920s, it has been a stable ethnic business and residential community; it represents Downtown San Diego’s oldest continuous-neighborhood business district.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Little Italy Association

However, the area’s history is not without its dark period. At one time, more than 6,000 Italian families lived in Little Italy and toiled to build San Diego into the global hub of the tuna industry. When the tuna industry on the West Coast waned and 35% of Little Italy was torn down during the construction of Interstate-5, the neighborhood suffered nearly 30 years of neglect. Then, in the early 1990s, established property owners and family-run business proprietors decided to take their fate into their own hands.

New Italian American and non-Italian business owners opened retail and professional spaces while creative builders and architects constructed beautiful developments. That it is today a model urban neighborhood, not just in San Diego but also for the handful of Little Italies remaining throughout the country, is a lesson in a community’s resilience.

This remarkable accomplishment can be credited mostly to the Little Italy Association (LIA), which was established in 1996 during the time of the revitalization of the Downtown area. The only district management corporation of its kind for any Little Italy neighborhood in the United States, it is run by a board of directors comprising 29 individual who represent property owners, residents, businesses, and the community at large. It advocates on behalf of its members’ best interests in matters of public safety, beautification, promotion, and economic development, while preserving the unique cultural resources of the area. Since its inception, it has been re-energizing this neighborhood while telling the story of Little Italy to its visitors through public art displays and amazing piazzas.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Little Italy Association

Gomez has been with LIA for 24 years and has become somewhat of an authority on all things Little Italy, so I ask him how he would plan an itinerary for someone visiting from L.A. He promptly replies, “If possible, make a weekend out of it. Come in on Friday night and stay in one of our boutique hotels like Carte and La Pensione, or the Doubletree, and stay for a couple of days. After checking in, go out for a casual dinner at Barbusa or Civico 1845.”

“The next morning, head out to the Farmers Market, which is very unique,” continues Gomez. “Our market maestro has curated the offerings to be very European – there’s fresh fish, including sturgeon, things that you wouldn’t normally see at standard farmers markets. Take a walk up and down India Street and visit the boutique retail stores on First Street, linger at our many piazzas, stop in and have lunch at Devanti Enoteca or another great restaurant. Then go back to the hotel to relax and freshen up.”

“Afterwards, go to the Embarcadero or downtown where dining places offer diverse culinary dishes,” Gomez goes on to say. “There are top chefs who have Michelin-starred restaurants here, like Juniper & Ivy. We have really cool bars like Camino Riviera or Kettner Exchange where people can go for a cocktail. Craft & Commerce is another great one with a speakeasy in the back that’s called False Idol.

“On Sunday morning, get coffee at a local café like Caffe Italia or Pappaleco … maybe have a quiche or panino and start your day all over again. Then check out of your hotel and head back home safely,” concludes Gomez.

The Piazza della Famiglia at night / Photo courtesy of San Diego Little Italy Association

I ask what a highlight would be if one were visiting Little Italy only for eight hours and Gomez responds, “It depends on what day you come. But if you’re here on a Saturday, definitely come to see the Farmers’ Market. Additionally, we have several piazzas that mirror European public spaces for people to sit at and relax in. Piazza della Famiglia is one particularly wonderful place to explore – it’s our largest piazza at 10,000 square feet. People can sit there and have a glass of prosecco or a cocktail while they enjoy a view the San Diego Bay, the weather, and the sound of people in that space. You can grab lunch or dinner at one of our local restaurants. There are multiple retail stores and galleries people can enjoy. We also have something called Music Box, which is an entertainment venue where you can watch a concert.”

This year, take your mom out on Mother’s Day for an experience that’s more memorable than the usual brunch at a chain restaurant. Spend her special day with her in Little Italy San Diego!       

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