"Excuse me, where is Little Italy?"

It's one of my favorite questions. I get asked this about twice a week as I'm walking my dogs, usually while crossing the street in front of my apartment on the corner of Beech and Columbia. And I usually get asked when I'm in the middle of the road.

"Little Italy? You're in it!" I say to the driver of the SUV as I try to edge my dogs onto the safety of the sidewalk. I'm not sure why, but it's almost always an SUV. I smile, and wait for the surprised look.

You can almost set your watch to it. One...Two...Surprised Look. It's priceless. Sometimes the look is extremely incredulous. Sometimes the look is dirty, which is certainly less desirable, but priceless nonetheless. Evidently, an Asian guy walking two English Bulldogs in front of a high-rise apartment building is not what comes to mind when people think "Little Italy".

"Uhh...this is Little Italy?"

"Yup. This side of the 5 from A Street to Laurel. But if you're looking for restaurants, go up another block and turn right on India. You can't miss them."

"Oh," says the driver, finally cracking a smile, "Thanks!"

I often wonder what people expect when they think of "Little Italy". Maybe they expect to see men playing stickball in the streets, or to maybe witness some bocci ball action. Perhaps they envision people sitting in outdoor cafes, speaking Italian and gesturing wildly with their hands over espresso.

Well, the stickball tournament in the streets happens every first Sunday from February until June. Take a stroll to Amici Park, and there's a good chance that you'll see some bocci ball action, and the rustic outdoor cafe scene can be found throughout.

But you also might find yourself asking for directions from an Asian guy walking two bulldogs.

Little Italy is much more than just the parts that scream "Italian". According to the Little Italy Association, Little Italy encompasses most of the space between Laurel and A Street on the west side of I-5. There are a multitude of flourishing Italian and non-Italian owned businesses that make the area one of the most desirable places to live and work in San Diego. The tireless maintenance crews keep the streets clean and the public areas spotless. The people are warm and courteous. It's also probably the most dog-friendly neighborhood in Southern California.

Little Italy residents come from a host of backgrounds and ethnicites, and we're proud of the history of our neighborhood, which is steeped in tales of the perseverance of Italian immigrants who built a thriving community from nothing. It's the perfect example of a strongly ethnic neighborhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive.

So the next time you find yourself in a great part of San Diego wondering what neighborhood you're in, consider the possibility that you could be in Little Italy. It might not be obvious at first, but once you consider the clean streets, friendly people, and thriving businesses that make this neighborhood great, it will be clear as day.

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