The Little Italy I love has always been its sumptuous food and sensual people, both of which, despite the nouveau riche takeover of late, remain as present and prosperous as ever. That Little Italy is alive in Mona Lisa Italian Foods, the tang of parmesan, the toasty fume of fresh-baked sourdough, the nasal snap of balsamic vinaigrette dousing a saucer of extra-virgin olive oil. It’s alive in the cannoli — the crispy-shelled, ricotta-filled, sugar-fairy pastry, just out of the freezer at RoVino (shoehorned next to the Waterfront) and served by two generations of homegrown cooks, the Tarantinos.
2061 India Street, Little Italy
2034 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
On the other side of the cannoli are Rosalie Tarantino and her nephew Tom, the 52-year-old owner of RoVino. The pair love parsing their shared history, all things Italian except the family meatball recipe. Rosalie, her features still fine-boned at 84, keeps the face of a beloved in an oval locket. She, like Tom’s mother and Tom’s daughter, and his brother’s daughter, are all Rosalie Tarantino. Of course, their friends and neighbors know by sight and sound who is who. But this naming tradition is like a bulwark against the risk that their ethnic claim may be vanishing.
When I eye and ear the surroundings, that risk is everywhere apparent.
The neighborhood’s home and its Italianness has been dwindling for decades. The major blow (two words, commonly repeated: ruined and destroyed) was the 1960 bisecting of Little Italy by Interstate 5, decimating a third of the community. Some moved up to Mission Hills or out to El Cajon. By then, the fishing industry had also drooped. The Tarantino clan retooled. Rosalie worked for the city. Others staffed government jobs, did laundry, canned at home, opened specialty shops, or majored in the fine art of marinara-cooking, pasta-serving, and cork-popping. One famous family member owned the legendary Harbor Drive eatery, John Tarantino’s.
1747 India Street, Little Italy
Rosalie and Tom, who grew up a generation apart, recall youths when few locals stepped out for dinner. “In our neighborhood,” Rosalie says, “everyone ate at home.” There weren’t that many restaurants.”
1643 India Street, Little Italy
“Leonardo’s,” Tom adds, “which is now Mona Lisa, Cash-and-Carry, which is now Filippi’s — and Solunto’s made bread. That’s all there was.” The onslaught of fancy urban villas in which to showcase traditional Italian food roared in during the stock-mad 1990s.
“No one in the old day called it ‘Little Italy,’” Tom goes on. “You just went down India Street and found a deli.” To hear these two recall the past — beauty salon, butcher, gasoline station, shoe repair, barber shop, drugstore with soda fountain, pistachio ice cream, jukeboxes, candy cigarettes, even the still-occurring procession from Our Lady of the Rosary down to the waterfront to bless the boats — is to catch the stuttering vibrato of Frankie Laine singing “That’s My Desire” from a wide-finned Oldsmobile rolling by.
“Every Italian kid my age was brought up with food, family, and faith,” today, RoVino’s tagline. “You went to church every Sunday. When our elders were in the room, you got up and kissed them. You called older people aunt and uncle whether they were or not. It’s just how it was.”
Rosalie and Tom recall during the late 1990s, one day, on-street parking was scarcer than usual. This was a bellwether. Suddenly, they noticed buildings rising above the wire wreaths of telephone poles. Since then, the encroachment is on. The new generation of occupiers are carless; they like not having a Vons or a Target; they Uber or ride the trolley; they are cool, hip, and options-fat.
Rosalie says her home on India is surrounded by only two remaining householders. They’re hunkering down as the phone rings daily with offers of two-million-plus for their postage-stamp plots. To which Tom rejoins, “No one’s going to buy her house as a house. They’re going to buy it for the land.”
On the land, Tom ticks off the new eateries, which, like modern art galleries, arrive captained by celebrity chefs like Richard Blais and Brian Malarkey. Already in place is the $6.5 million Born and Raised on India at Fir Street with its wood-sculpted, bison-ribbed entrance. And plans are finalizing for Mark Wahlberg’s Wahlburgers and the retro/glossy/chain Shake Shack.
“Why would you want to stop this,” Tom says, his tone laced with irony. This, the hyper-bourgeois institutionalization of the “dining out experience” as though it’s a city dweller’s human right.
The gaseous part of Little Italy’s foodie bubble for Tom?
“As a businessman down here, I love it. As growing up down here” — he motors in from Scripps Ranch — “in my heart, I hate it. I don’t enjoy living down here now. It was never like this. It’s too urban.”
A new kind of Italian identity
The Italian Historical Society of San Diego’s book of photographs, San Diego’s Little Italy, one in the series of “Images of America,” outlines the enclave’s attraction to sunny skies and fishable waters 100 years ago. Many streamed in from Porticello, in Sicily, (the south) and Genoa and Riva Trigoso, in Liguria (the north), escaping poverty and a First World War in southern Europe. Prior to this, some came from San Francisco, battered by the 1906 earthquake. While the community “served to reinforce the strong ties to the mother country... San Diego’s Little Italy allowed for a new kind of Italian identity — an American Italian identity — to be shaped by a variety of experiences.”
What fostered the character that became Little Italy’s 6000 families? Settlers combined hard knocks — before, during, and after the Great Depression — with a cocoon-like sense of place, a magnet by which adventuresome relatives could set their compasses. All spoke Italian (including the dogs); most learned English. Add in the lure of American opportunity, the myth (sometimes true, at least, then) that hard work and staying put and a savings account meant spare coins jangling in your purse. Such values required three generations in Little Italy to toil, apparently without complaint, in the fishing industry — long-poling, boat-building, net-mending, cannery-managing, or belly-slitting and slime-lining the catch of the day.
In 1937, 140 million pounds of skipjack and yellowfin are hooked by the California tuna fleet. For a boy wandering the dock that year, boats and their ice-packed cargo steam in at sunset. On Harbor Drive, the cannery night crew are stitching their uniforms, passing around copies of Sun Harbor’s Catch & Can News. The whistle sounds, and stevedores fin-toss the fish onto conveyor belts that ramp into the plant. Assembly-line workers decapitate, gut, and filet the tuna, pack minced portions in cans. For that Italian-American boy (his sister, stuck cooking at home), the smell of fish innards is the smell of money. The romance of tuna-boating and the dreamed-of riches landscape the bay like the Seven Seas of Sinbad. Bright-night clouds tell the boy the moon is grinning. His pocket knife is the sword of Hercules. Creeping home, he senses God lurking in alleyways, hiding under a stairwell and visible only when he’s alone.
All this happened once and may, on some level, happen still. The lonely present bulges, tumor-like, with the starry past. Saint Augustine reminds us that our ancestors, the dead, are invisible. They’re not absent.
Exit the old, enter the new, and Little Italy in this century births a new identity. It’s a place to dine, to drink, to seek that starry past. And, for the neighborhood’s promoters, to market itself as such. Taking a walk on the sales side, we encounter a labyrinthine tautology: Little Italy’s boosters, like an ouroboros, have granted themselves the opportunity to make money off of boosting it. The chief espousers, Marco Li Mandri and Steven Galasso, began the Little Italy Association in 1997 and still apportion its $2.5 million annual revenue. That year the pair got its 67 acres designated a small Business Improvement District. It’s an unfortunate noun string, BID, but without it, so it’s claimed, the locale could not have been tendered to the one percent as its favorite urban hot spot.
As proof of its civic activism, here’s the Little Italy Association’s most recent annual report (2016) in which their Monopoly-board metrics are enumerated: the number of employees (6300), the number of media hits and TV segments (450), the number of Little-Italy-marked trash cans (250) and recycling receptacles (100), the number of property owners (1858), the number of apartment units and condos (2866), the number of hotel/motel/B&B rooms (1275), the number of trees (1300), the number of banners (two dozen) celebrating among other famous Italians (Lady Gaga; Antonin Scalia; few San Diegans), the number of social media dings (52,341 Facebook posts; 21,000 Instagram pops; 5724 tweets), and the number of public spaces (13), which includes piazzas, a dog park (whose square feet of K-9 Grass, “The Artificial Grass Designed Specifically for Dogs,” where play and defecation thrive, is 6100), and Amici Park at State and Date. (It matters not how many parking spaces there are — the number is never enough.) Thus, it is claimed, “San Diego’s Little Italy is seen as one of the top Little Italy neighborhoods in the nation.”
I had no idea the number of Little Italy neighborhoods in the nation is quantified, standing today at a dozen. A few are successful while most have “fallen by the wayside” and need associational love.
Marco Li Mandri, the chief flag-waver of the neighborhood, is 100 percent Sicilian. I ask about what’s happening to Little Italy: a good thing? a bad thing? His response snaps back before my question ends. Even by the late 1990s, he says, “Little Italy was a forgotten land: asphalt sidewalks, parking lots. We didn’t know that some 4000 residential units were coming.” They organized the improvement district to corner redevelopment funds and sell the visibility/livability of the historic locale. Li Mandri’s maxim is that “in 1990, 10 percent of San Diegans knew there was a Little Italy. Now, 10 percent don’t.”
After tuna, Depression-era hard times, necessary and ginned-up American wars, and the U.S. Navy all came and went, what was left? In a word, nostalgia. For Li Mandri, an essential word. To commodify that nostalgia is to harness San Diego’s mom-and-pop past: for rainbow-tiled plazas, for yesteryear façades, for monetized management, and for nests of people, in Li Mandri’s summation, who are “highly motivated to keep Little Italy growing vertically but maintain its historical nature.”
Is there any tension between those who want to erect more glass-and-steel boxes and those who want to keep the funky Mediterranean Revival homes of yore?
“No tension, no conflict,” Li Mandri boasts. “The people who live in the neighborhood love living here.”
What about the mounting number of condos sprouting on the last of the blacktop parking lots?
“Would I rather have people or cars on those lots?” Li Mandri says. “I’d rather have people.” He tallies how the having-people idea completes itself in the many potted piazzas he’s midwifed in the neighborhood: Piazza Basilone (India and Fir), for “the boys who never came home” from World War II and the Korean War; Piazza Pescatore (at Kettner and Grape), for the local Italian fishing families; and the large, carless, big-fountain Piazza della Famiglia (Date Street, between Columbia and India), now in its fifth year of construction.
The “vision thing” for Li Mandri is to buttress the current trend — less shopping (“Amazon’s got that covered”) and more fine dining and people-watching. He’s quick to credit foot-traffic to the neighborhood’s “pedestrian” lifestyle. Walk Score, a walkability indexer, rates San Diego as “somewhat walkable,” though Little Italy, its sidewalks bench-packed, is quite high, third behind Core-Columbia and Horton Plaza. (Call it also the Mom-ability index: a safe neighborhood reveals itself in the number of perambulators on India.) “We’ve been able to develop,” Li Mandri says, “a 16-hour day here: seven in the morning to late at night.” Breakfast, lunch, especially for county workers, dinner, plus inbound riders on Uber, Lyft, or FRED, a free, app-summoned van service.
But to rent or own? Another story. Most prices for owners and renters are way beyond affordable. A Little Italy studio (good luck finding one) is $1600 a month; a one-bedroom apartment, $2400; two bedrooms, $2900.
Ever a moot argument, housing developers must include affordable housing, 10 percent by law, into their projects — if they want to reap tax benefits, post-construction. Its inclusion will also fast-track the permitting process. Even then, most companies pay the fee so they don’t have to monkey with affordable. Those who need reasonable rents the most, getting to and from Little Italy’s food-service work, are stuck in roommate-bulging apartments in our Scrooge-ish city.
Topmast is Vici Luxury Rentals, going up where the Reader building used to be. Note the out-front ad: “Dare to Live.” (Dare to pay the high six figures or the low seven figures.) With its rooftop garden and European-style living, the behemoth, hobbled by construction and weather delays, is only one-third leased. Projected opening, full or no, March 2018.
A relentless optimist, Li Mandri wants for Little Italy what San Francisco’s North Beach or Greenwich Village has: “hipsters and hip-replacement people...mixed income, mixed race, mixed use.”
I counter that all this mixing is Little Italy’s noisy self-dramatization: the rumble of delivery trucks, the ding-ding zipline of trains, the belly-wide roar of planes, the sloshed choirs in one after another beer joint.
“All that was there before” — he volleys back — “the cruise ships, the Navy, the freeway, the freight trains, the trolley, the airport — all that was there before there was any development.”
Li Mandri says, there’s no downside to developing within the community. It’s only outside forces — infected homeless and one car per person — that threaten. The community wants him to oversee it, he says — Li Mandri’s been described as an “assessment guru,” one who creates a neighborhood plan for which residents and businesses must pay if they want the fruits of his executive vision — “because,” he says, “if you don’t manage it, it will lead to crisis.”
Also known as economic stagnation or entrepreneurial neglect. Yet, can’t a community be loved — and over-organized — to death as well?
In Little Italy, every night is date night. It used to be that the enclave’s restaurants had seasonal or weekend crowds. It was a first-date place, 18-inch pizzas, he finishing what she couldn’t. But less so in the glossy urban era. Cruise in, and there they are. The scenesters, men and their sketchy three-day beards, aspiring logo designers, their hands waist-guiding high-heeled brunettes with middle-parted long hair, aspiring logos. They’ve arrived at the second-story unwindowed bars where thump-thump house music has replaced candlelight balladry. Once, Frankie Valli’s falsetto. Now, Bruno Mars’s pronking. Driven in, their cars have been holstered by valets, ($7, $9), young men in jazz-hat fedoras, the identity gear of parking attendants. Carousers have been Lyft-dumped by those who need not park, their faces illumined in the greenish blue light of dash-mounted cellphones, which tell them how close they are to the destination (the crush in front of the Waterfront, with man, woman, and mug high-chaired on the sidewalk, is exasperatingly slow) and his/her next ping.
Indeed, the Lyft ride is a metaphor for Little Italy. Easy in, easy out. No responsibilities, no reason to overnight. Convergence: where people congregate there’s life. Convergence, congregation. Every now and then, two cars pull up to a stop sign and neither moves, the (competitive) feeling is, I’m passing through more slowly than you are.
Maybe the thing I can’t see, stuck in the suburban drollery of my life, is how certain enclaves compact the eating, entertaining, moonlighting, dreaming, and more — in a public forum, an agora, which the TV-quieted homes of Clairemont, little temples to blasé, never know or can’t imagine as a worthwhile night on the town. Unless we get in our Hondas and drive there.
Density is good
Gary Smith, president of the San Diego Downtown Residents Group, epitomizes the urban lounger. Still in shorts and T-shirt on a fallish day, he is as unfazed as he is energized by all the bustling and hammering, the grinding and beeping of backing-up trucks. Residents and homeowners, 37,452 people, he tells me, live downtown, around 6000 in Little Italy; maybe 10 percent are members of his group.
He’s nested downtown, west of the 5 (he has his car in a paid-for parking spot), since 1985. When did the race from one-story buildings to six stories take off? Smith says there was no launch. It’s been incremental — and only seems boom-ish in retrospect.
“Remember the Huffman six-pack” he asks.
Those featureless units were the scourge of the 1970s — on one lot, six units stacked like soup cartons on a store shelf with six parking slots under a carport: visual repugnancy. Such is “what other neighborhoods think density is,” Smith says. Not downtown. He and his group have, to date, held architects to a classier standard; the Huffman six-pack has not materialized in Little Italy.
“Downtown,” he continues, “we think density is a great thing,” attracting the right mix of supportive residents, classy development, and beehive activity. “Density is good.”
1704 India Street, Little Italy
To those residents who flap foul about infill in their backyards, Smith says, “They don’t have my sympathy.” From our perch in Caffé Italia, he sweeps his hands outward like Jesus: “Go out and walk up and down the street. It ain’t San Francisco. It ain’t New York. So, don’t even talk about being over-densified. Until you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds — give me a break.” Everyone who’s involved in what he calls “planning the city’s future, none of them are nimbys or bananas.” Bananas? “Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.”
An example of how to “protect” the enclave’s charm is — get ready — the Little Italy Sun Access Overlay. At Kettner and B towers the elegant [email protected], just south of Little Italy’s southern border. The 326-unit building’s north-facing façade is like a staircase of Legos. The design rule is that “the sun has to be able to get to the northside sidewalk,” says Smith. The result, apparently architect Rob Quigley’s brainchild, captures the quiddity of San Diego. You can’t block the street’s access to the sun, our golden state’s gold. Parks reap the benefits: in the rare event of a steady rain, the soggy soil needs to dry out. This slicing away of giant glass rectangles fosters angled views of the bay for the movie-mogul condo. That is, until another developer Manhattanizes the block in front.
I suggest to Smith that he may be in the preservationist game. In other words, the very kinds of building regulations he favors in Little Italy may, one day, be seen as the neighborhood’s salvation.
He doesn’t think we’re even close today to 2050’s “enough already” for Little Italy. “In Paris,” he says, “they clamped solid limits” on modernist development, forcing the truly excremental structures “to spread. But nobody,” in San Diego County particularly, “wants ‘spread’ anymore. If I can’t go above 35 feet in the burbs, I got to do it somewhere. It’s going to be downtown.” Infill. Living on top of each other. Every wall a common wall.
Infill is more a mandate of the State of California long-term planning offices than it is the rapacious Doug Manchesters and Corky McMillins of the Southland pushing it. Smith says these decisions are top-down. “They are telling us, rightly, that we need to accommodate, going forward, X number of jobs and X number of people.”
Despite the anti-regulatory zeal of the Trump administration, agencies that configure regional transportation needs have to plan growth. (And where are their angelic blueprints for Mission Valley?) Wherever I go in Little Italy I hear this: If people are going to have jobs in San Diego, they must live near where they work. How can this not be true, let alone missed in the master plan?
The bottom line for Smith is that developers are the Magi. “We welcome them,” he says. “The apartment/condo vacancy rate is one percent. San Diego’s city bird is the 200-foot crane!”
1629 Columbia Street, Little Italy
There is something luminous about Father Louis Solcia, for 25 years a priest at Our Lady of the Rosary, at State and Date streets. It radiates from his salty Milanese accent, which epitomizes the ethnic legacy and its continuing vigor in Little Italy. I’m trying to zero in on le mot juste for the glow as I talk with the 86-year-old, black-attired, “God bless you, real good” priest — why he was called to be a Catholic missionary and teacher with degrees in education and sociology.
Growing up in Milan during the war, he sheltered from bombing raids and prayed over much destruction. “I said, ‘This can’t go on.’” He felt called to “do good” and attended seminaries in America and Canada. He wanted “an active life,” not a contemplative one. Touching his hand to his heart, he tells me his order was the Barnabites whose goals, Wikipedia reports, are “preaching in general, catechizing, hearing confessions, giving missions, ministrations in hospitals and prisons, and the education of youth.”
When he arrived at Our Lady in 1992, he noticed neighborhood gangs peddling drugs, getting corruptibly close to Washington Elementary. Father Louis, sparking community attention, oversaw building renovations and upgrades, which, he says, pushed out the druggies.
“I’m very proud of this neighborhood,” he says, “because of the love of family, the love of food, and the love of succeeding. Italians work hard, are humble, are not assuming.” (He also adores Italians because they are a “sweet, kind, generous, social, happy people.”) The chief quality, he says, is humility: “Nobody’s bragging about succeeding.” He’s heard stories of women from the old days who “would make bread in their backyard ovens, sell them for 25 cents a loaf, and did very well.” Plus, he says, many “still speak Italian or Sicilian.” Walk India Street and weave among its outdoor tables. You’ll hear tough dialects from men who never speak with their mouths full, the pizza is that good.
Alas, most old-country sorts are long gone — to the suburbs for school or to the retirement homes. Today, Our Lady is a beacon and a magnet, not a neighbor.
In recent years, Father Louis has watched an influx of “yuppies.” He espies them from this second-floor office window on Columbia Street. They congregate in Little Italy “to make a fast buck.” Such is not the Italian way. “You have to be patient.”
One change he points to is the church’s open arms toward immigrant Filipinos. (When I meet the youngest of the two Filipino priests, on the stomach-stuffed side of a spaghetti-dinner fundraiser one Saturday, he is blessing — holy water anointing — a Nissan Highlander. He tells me, “You want to talk about the growth of Little Italy? I don’t see any growth. There’s just a lot of people who need me.”) Half of the church’s congregation is not Italian, Father Louis says. Those who want in, “love our culture, our traditions.”
I think, surely, love of culture and tradition is undeniable. But there’s also a faith-based lastingness about Father Louis, amid the Bible reference books weighing down one office wall, that’s also part of his aura. Or else it’s the food and the Romanesque beauty of the churches he’s said Mass in and the Latin classes he’s taught for 60 years. He seems, in the self-aggrandizing world where everyone has to make a buck off of Little Italy’s facelift, to be different kind of developer, another sort of Magi.
I rarely meet people who love the Catholic church. Those I’ve known do nothing but argue with it. Pick and choose their Catholicity. Dispute doctrine, tribalize divisions, weaponize faith, ignore their brothers and sisters. Not Father Louis. He’s a rare one. One with an accept-all amplitude about his mission. One with an unselfish duty to officiate at funerals, Masses, blessings, classes, answering letters from the sick, listening to the ashamed, forgiving the criminals, cleansing the burdened of that which Zoloft and psychotherapy cannot clean. One who goes where none of us goes — into a wing of Children’s Hospital where babies and children are so ill that they do not survive.
The word I’m searching for is devotion. As long as that devotion to community is pure of heart and requires no payback and is evident in even one person between Laurel and Ash, State and Pacific Highway, its wave carries Little Italy on.