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Epicurean Adventures in Little Italy

Where the culinary past meets the present

San Diego’s culinary epicenter is home to celebrity chefs and high-design eateries along with old-world treasures and traditions.

By: Ann Wycoff; Food, Spa & Travel Writer

A Delicious Place for Food and Culture

Once home to San Diego's flourishing tuna fishing industry in the early 1900s and generations of Italian families who made their living on the sea, Little Italy is a charming cultural hub that edges downtown and the harbor. Today, San Diego's most dynamic food and drink scene is centered in this bustling neighborhood that's peppered with quaint cafes, al fresco eateries, craft brew stops, urban wineries, and myriad restaurants. It's a place where gentlemen dressed in white place bocce ball in Amici Park and Top Chef alums have set up shop next to old-school eateries serving authentic Italian fare.

Top Chef Alley

A slew of luminary chefs have gravitated to Kettner Boulevard, giving it the moniker of Top Chef Alley. Cookbook author, Top Chef vet and judge Richard Blais converted a 100-year old warehouse into a modern gem—Juniper & Ivy features exposed beams and booths, an exhibition kitchen and exciting bar scene. Blais plays successfully with molecular gastronomy in his seasonal menu with standout dishes like buttermilk biscuits with smoked butter, ahi tartare with preserved yuzu, carne crudo asada toast topped with a quail egg, uni carbonara, and a kitschy devil's food cake dessert, to name a few. Next door, a giant 10-foot chicken welcomes guests to Blais' other thriving spot, The Crack Shack, an all-day, chicken and egg eatery set on a sleek wooden deck with communal tables, a humming bar scene, bocce ball and flat screens for sports viewing. The casual walk-up eatery is popular with post-farmers market shoppers and people watchers who sit on the patio, sipping craft beers with their fried chicken, slaw, and salads. Not to miss is Blais' eye-catching Senor Croque, which is like a brunch between two buns—loaded with bacon, eggs, chicken, cheese and miso-maple syrup.

Just down the street you’ll find another celebrity chef, Brian Malarkey, a pioneer in San Diego's social dining evolution with his seafood-centric Herringbone and design-savvy Searsucker. He’s also the force behind stylish Herb & Wood that focuses on wood-fired meats, seafood, housemade pastas, veggies, and old school libations. Take advantage of San Diego's near year-round warm weather and dine under the stars on their patio, replete with a dual-sided fireplace, lounge areas, comfy blue booths or cozy up inside and watch the action in the exhibition kitchen inside. The restaurant’s striking design nods to Paris 1920s with a little Cape Cod tossed in. The adjacent Herb & Eatery is a fast causal café with farm fresh salads, poke, pastries and more, and a chef’s market lined with oils, herbs and spices, homemade gelatos, fine wines and craft beers.

Vegetariani e Vegani Opzioni (Vegetarian & Vegan Fare)

Café Gratitude has also landed in Little Italy. The all-organic plant-based eatery, which has outposts in LA, the Bay Area and Orange County, charms with its seasonally driven eclectic menu whose dishes are named for affirmations like "I am Crunchy" (housemade granola) and "I am Awesome" (eggplant parmesan panini). The clean white and bright design enhances the purity of the food, which is also rich with flavor and creativity.

Speaking of excellent vegan cuisine, Civico 1845, helmed by Italian-born brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo, has an impressive vegan menu complementing their modern Italian fare. A nice vegan trio includes the Polpettine di Miglio (a millet "meatball" over greens with a trio of sauces), the delish quinoa and lentil salad with strawberries and blueberries, and the chocolate mousse with salted caramel ginger cookie crumble.  For non-vegan dishes, choose from the scratchmade pasta with short rib ragu or Caledonian prawns, or homemade ricotta dumplings with fennel sausage and black truffles. Beautiful Italian wines and patio dining add to the experience.

Frutti di Mare (Succulent Seafood)

Set in a 1920s warehouse, Ironside Fish and Oyster is dressed up with nautical décor, including mermaid sconces, porthole windows and sea foam green benches. In addition to great people watching, it's the spot for oysters and champagne, fresh fish and chef Jason McLeod's famous lobster roll.

Shared Plates & Nightlife

At Kettner Exchange, chef Brian Redzikowski serves up progressive American cuisine in multiple stunning settings to suit every mood from his subterranean chef table to a rooftop bar and cabana scene. Favorites include big-eye tuna tacos, duck meatballs, octopus ceviche and the refreshing Georgia Sunshine libation with bourbon, lemon, honey, peach bitters. After dark, there's a serious line-up for the rooftop with its swinging day beds, fire pits, fashionable cabanas with their own personal kegs and great views of the cityscape and bay.

La Birra Artigianale a Little Italy (Handcrafted Brews)

Craft beer connoisseurs should head over to Ballast Point Tasting Room and Kitchen where rotating beers spill from 52 taps, a perfect spot for a hoppy Sculpin and some truffle fries. Or stop in at the Bottlecraft Shop and Tasting Room, a craft beer nirvana on India Street. San Diego Cellars features little Italy's resident winemaker Todd Hipper where you can taste his crisp albarino or his full-bodied Cabernet at this urban winery.

Wine Tasting

Sit under the stars and sip chardonnay or pinot noir from Paso Robles at the Pali Wine Co., or try a global flight from small producers at the neighborhood gem, Vino Carta. Carruth Cellars has a great back patio and tasting room bar to sample their wines made from grapes sourced from Central and Northern California.

Ristoranti Tradizionali Italiani e Altro (Traditional and Other Fare)

For more nibbling and sipping, traditional Italian eateries include Buon Appetito, Mona Lisa and Filippi's Pizza Grotto, while farm-to-table dining can be found at Prepkitchen, ramen at Underbelly, and Milanese-style street fare at Monello. There's also no shortage of cafes for lattes and cappuccinos, dessert spots for gelato and walk-ups for fresh, piping hot pizza.

Little Italy Mercato

One of the city's most dynamic farmers markets is held every Saturday and Wednesday from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM and showcases farm fresh produce, delicious eats, handicrafts, and live music—another great way to experience the whirlwind of energy and creativity in Little Italy.

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