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Epicurean Adventures in Little Italy

Where the culinary past meets the present

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, home to quaint cafes, al fresco eateries, craft beer stops, urban wineries, and myriad restaurants. Colorful Little Italy is a place where locals dressed in white play bocce ball in Amici Park and Top Chef alums have set up shop next to old-school eateries serving authentic Italian fare.

Celebrity Chef Talent

Over the past few years, luminary chefs have gravitated to Little Italy. Since his stint on season 3 of Top Chef, Chef Brian Malarkey has been a pioneer in San Diego's social dining evolution. Chef Malarkey is the force behind the stylish Herb & Wood with a menu focusing on wood-fired meats, seafood, house-made pastas, veggies, and old school libations. The restaurant's striking design nods to Paris 1920s with a little Cape Cod tossed into the recipe.

Sam "The Cooking Guy" Zien is another famous face in Little Italy's culinary scene. His popular eateries include Not Not Tacos, Graze by Sam and Samburgers, all found in and near the Little Italy Food Hall, a vibrant and locally driven venue complemented by the 10,000-square foot outdoor Piazza della Familglia in the heart of the neighborhood. At Not Not Tacos, diners won't find the typical Mexican-influenced tacos with carnitas, pollo or carne asada, but they'll discover meatloaf, salmon and pastrami creations that are big, bold and full of flavor.

Cookbook author, Top Chef veteran and judge Richard Blais was the original culinary talent behind award-winning Juniper & Ivy and The Crack Shack, an all-day, chicken and egg eatery located next door on Kettner Boulevard. Blais helped raise the reputation of Little Italy's dining scene at Juniper & Ivy with his seasonal menu that played successfully with molecular gastronomy. Both venues continue to provide celebrity-worthy meals under the helm of new Executive Chef Michael Wells.

Vegetarian and Vegan

Café Gratitude is a must for vegetarian and vegan diners. The all-organic plant-based eatery charms with its seasonally driven eclectic menu with dishes named for affirmations like "I am Crunchy" (housemade granola) and "I am Awesome" (eggplant parmesan panini). The cafe’s clean white and bright design enhances the purity of the food which is also rich with flavor and creativity. Civico 1845, helmed by Italian-born brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo, also 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 delicious quinoa and lentil salad with strawberries and blueberries, and the chocolate mousse with salted caramel ginger cookie crumble. Diners love the Japanese vegan experience at The Yasai with a menu of vegan ramen, vegan sushi rolls and other Japanese-inspired plant-based dishes.

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, Ironside is the spot for oysters and champagne, fresh fish and Chef Jason McLeod's famous lobster roll. Barbusa offers authentic modern Sicilian cuisine with a flair for artisan pizzas, handmade pasta and seafood-centric dishes including an extensive selection of crudo. Head to Cloak & Petal for authentic Japanese sushi, creative cocktails and stylish décor reminiscent of an abandoned Tokyo subway.

Shared Plates and Nightlife

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

Craft and Commerce is equal parts restaurant and popular nightspot. Fashionable guests enjoy delicious food, creative cocktails and a unique aesthetic. The restaurant resembles a dimly lit industrial literary cabin with hundreds of hardbound classic novels stacked on ceiling-high bookshelves and century-old taxidermy mounted and displayed on the walls. Inside Craft and Commerce, guests also find False Idol, a trendy tiki bar serving strong drinks in a fun tropical surrounding.

Craft Beer and Wine Tasting

Craft beer connoisseurs should head over to Ballast Point Brewing Company where rotating beers are poured 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.

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

Traditional Italian Restaurants

It should be no surprise that Italian cuisine rules the kitchens in many Little Italy restaurants. Traditional Italian eateries include Buon Appetito, Mona Lisa, Filippi's Pizza Grotto, and Monello serving Milanese-style street fare. Bencotto is a chic bi-level eatery famed for artisanal Italian eats including handmade pasta and classic desserts. Favorite menu items at Davanti Enoteca are Gnocchi Bolognese and the Linguinne All'Arlecchino with shrimp, scallops, manila clams, garlic, and olive oil in a spicy cherry tomato sauce. Sweet shop Zucchero is known for scrumptious cakes, pastries, desserts, and gelatos made fresh in-house. There is also no shortage of Little Italy cafes for lattes and cappuccinos, dessert spots for gelato and walk-ups for fresh, piping hot pizza.

International Fare

For diners seeking non-Italian eats, head over to Underbelly for hearty bowls of ramen and Japanese comfort grub served in an industrial-chic setting. Set in a charming Craftsman-style home, Queenstown Public House is a quaint, whimsical restaurant specializing in New Zealand-inspired dishes. Located at the Piazza della Famiglia, the Little Italy Food Hall features six food stations and a full bar. Diners can choose a diverse selection of meals from Wicked Maine Lobster and Mein St. Asian Kitchen to Not Not Tacos and Samburgers by Sam “The Cooking Guy”. Born and Raised, helmed by Michelin Star Executive Chef Jason McLeod, has become an iconic neighborhood restaurant for high-end steaks and cocktails with glitzy décor and a rooftop bar and patio overlooking Little Italy and San Diego Bay. 

Breakfast Spots

Executive Chef Jason McLeod brings his Michelin Star talent to Morning Glory, another "must go" restaurant in Little Italy. Lines form early at this stylish breakfast spot for one-of-a-kind menu items like Morning Glory Fried Rice with pork belly, cheese, peas, spinach, scallion, and fried eggs. Another great place to start the day is Parakeet Café serving delicious meals made from ingredients sourced from local organic farms. The café is popular for vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, and gluten-free eaters. At Farmer's Table, located at the boot of Piazza della Famiglia, hearty breakfasts are complemented by relaxed outdoor patios and great people watching, particularly during Little Italy’s weekly farmers markets. 

Farmers Markets

The Little Italy Mercato, one of the San Diego's most dynamic farmers markets, is held every Saturday from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM and showcases farm fresh produce, delicious eats, handicrafts, live music, and a friendly and stylish crowd. The Little Italy Wednesday Market occurs 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM with a special Holiday Market during December. These festive markets are great ways to experience the whirlwind of energy and creativity in Little Italy.

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