Set on a hill top overlooking the San Diego harbor, Little Italy is a walkable neighborhood with delights around every corner. At 48 square blocks, Little Italy San Diego is the largest in the United States with plenty to discover on a walking tour. Our Day Trips Traveling Mom recently toured the area with her husband and infant daughter. Read on for more on Little Italy’s patio cafés, restaurants, pubs, art galleries, and shops to entertain visitors all day.
Visiting Little Italy, San Diego
San Diego’s Little Italy has been a business and residential community since the 1920’s. Many of the Italian-Americans worked as a tuna fisherman including my grandfather. My mother grew up in downtown San Diego when my grandfather would escort her to the harbor every day to work on his tuna boat. Though commercial tuna fishing on the West Coast has waned, the Little Italy area of San Diego has remained strong with the last 30 years experiencing a lively rejuvenation. Walking down the streets, you’ll catch snippets of Italian spoken by locals and visitors alike.
Wear comfortable shoes if you plan on covering the entire area as Little Italy is set on a hillside. Find paid parking lots and metered parking on the street. If visiting on Saturday, I’d recommend parking at one of the Washington Elementary’s parking lots (open from 7 am to 4 pm). Parking on Saturday is free for the first two hours and only $2 per hour thereafter.
Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market
Every Saturday, rain or shine, local vendors set up shop at the Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market. This is the place to grab your weekly fresh produce including eggs, fruits and veggies, honey, and fresh-caught seafood.
Shop at over 200 booths that include handcrafted soaps, crafts, flowers, home goods and gifts. We snacked our way through the crowds during our visit, enjoying local artisan food samples like chocolate, pastries, and nuts. The Farmers Market is the perfect place to pick up an authentic San Diego souvenir.
Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market takes place each Saturday, 8 am to 2 pm, on West Cedar St, between Kettner Blvd and Front St.
At noon we had a reservation at Civico 1845. Civico 1845 is a family-affair. They are extremely passionate about their restaurant and the food served to their guests. Dario Gallo and Flavio Piromallo, both owners and general managers of the restaurant, were on hand to share their thoughts with me about the menu and food we could expect.
Dario noted that the menu is “modern” Italian, and therefore, does not incorporate traditional heavy, creamy sauces. However, they still do many things in the “old-fashioned way,’ preparing all pastas and breads from scratch and slow cooking foods to draw out the best flavors. Ingredients are fresh and locally grown. Believe me, that really shows in the amazing flavors in each dish. Many dishes offered are 100% vegan or gluten-free dishes to appeal to many. Both gentleman took the time to chat with us at our table, lingering to talk about the meal and making sure we were happy with our choices.
The first course set the one for a tasty meal with soft squares of thick focaccia bread, pillowy soft, and with a bit of a crunch on the crust. It was served with a dish of chopped fresh basil, parsley and olive oil. The basil had a pleasantly bold flavor and paired nicely with the bread. Fortunately, we saved some of our bread to sop up every last bit of sauce on our dishes later!
As a nursing mom, I decided to skip the wine menu on this visit. What a disappointment, because the choices were extensive. I would love to try one of their Italian white wines on a future visit. My husband enjoyed a beer on tap during our meal.
Dario recommended an appetizer, the Burrata Heirloom Caprese. We’ve had Caprese before but never this delicate, never this flavorful and lovely. Heirloom tomatoes were sliced paper-thin and fanned across the plate, drizzled with cold pressed EVOO, and balsamic vinaigrette. A hearty portion of creamy burrata cheese was sprinkled with black lava salt and topped in the center with wild arugula. The flavors were delightful and kick-started our appetite for more.
Once we’d had a taste, we were ready to decide on our main course. I knew right away what I wanted, the Raviolo Classico. And oh my! Six large ravioli, stuffed with homemade ricotta cheese, bits of spinach and coated with a creamy tomato sauce was divine. I savored each bite (glad to have the bread in which to nab each bit of the sauce left in the bowl!)
My husband waffled between two different dishes but Dario was happy to help him decide on the Pappardelle Brasato. This was a hearty helping of pasta topped with slow-braised short rib ragù, Cabernet, and Italian aromatic herbs. Slices of Parmigiano Reggiano topped the dish, and Flavio sprinkled a generous serving of freshly grated parmesan on top.
Neither my husband or I have ever had short rib meat with pasta before but this was a savory delight. The meat was tender, the pasta al dente and the flavors were simply incredible. My husband is quite particular about his food and we rarely eat out because he tends to be concerned about how healthfully prepared the meals are in restaurants. No worries here as each dish was so fresh and appetizing.
When it came time for dessert, Flavio asked what we wanted and we told him to “Surprise us!” And that he did, proudly placing a dish of rich chocolate gelato sprinkled with a heavy hand of cacao powder in front of us. I couldn’t find it on the menu so whatever that creamy and delicious treat was will continue to be a surprise.
Don’t expect to jump in and out of this restaurant; this is not fast food. The dishes at Civico 1845 are prepared fresh and that takes time. Sit back with a glass of wine, enjoy your company,and relish each bite. We dined at lunch and the restaurant was quite busy. Flavio noted that dinner is even more so. I definitely recommend reservations.
Civico 1845 is located at 1845 India Street San Diego, California 92101
Little Italy San Diego Mobile App
Though you can certainly just roam the streets of Little Italy and discover the area as you go, nothing like a tour to teach you more of the history. Take these tours one your own at your own leisure. The self-guided tours allow you to explore the neighborhood, revealing this area’s San Diego history all the way back to the 1800s. Each of the four tour apps will take you on a 1 to 1 1/2 mile route. The Little Italy App is free to download and available on the iTunes Store and Google Play Market. The app also has recommendations for restaurants, shops and hotels.
Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen Restaurant
After walking in the sun, we opted to step inside the Ballast Point for a quick drink. The large restaurant was packed, even with generous seating inside, but luckily found two chairs together. We’d just finished lunch but couldn’t resist admiring the tasty-looking plates other guests were enjoying, like shrimp tacos. Soak in the San Diego sun on the restaurant’s covered outdoor patio.
Lucky us, we entered Ballast Point along with the General Manager, Giorgio Saturnino. He and my husband struck up a conversation. Georgio invited my husband to the bar to discuss favorite IPA. My husband is already a big Ballast Point fan with its lively atmosphere. And the beer flight with the handpicked variety of IPA certainly won him over too. This is a happening spot so prepare for a crowd.
Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen in Little Italy is located at 2215 India St San Diego, CA 92101
Make it a Day Trip
Step inside the “jewel of Little Italy”, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church. A viewing of the stained glass in this beautiful church, built in 1925, is worth the visit.
Wander down towards the San Diego waterfront and make a splash at the Waterfront Park! Walk several blocks down either W. Grape St. or W. Cedar St. to reach this beautiful public park space. Located right along the harbor, the park offers large grassy areas to relax, play equipment for kids, and spray fountains for cooling off, all free. Take note that it will be a steep walk back uphill!
Stay for dinner, especially if you love pizza. Keep with traditional dishes (Filippi’s Pizza Grotto and Mona Lisa Italian Foods). Or try something more contemporary and diverse (Napizza and Bencotto Italian Kitchen). If your sweet tooth is craving dessert (cannolis!), try Cafe Zucchero. I’ve never waited to treat myself after dinner though, as I usually indulge in one of their delicious cannoli from the pastry counter for breakfast!
Which walking tour app would you be most interested in taking? Share with us in the comments!