SAN DIEGO (CN) – The most successful, booming Little Italy neighborhood is not in New York, Boston or Chicago – it’s in San Diego.
While other Little Italy neighborhoods and ethnic communities across the nation have struggled to maintain their identities following the surge of immigration and subsequent flight of immigrant families to the suburbs, San Diego’s Little Italy has flourished. The neighborhood has experienced a renaissance over the past 20 years thanks to redevelopment efforts and the district management corporation that has made the community into its own little city.
Once the tuna fishing capital of the world, San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood was a bustling neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s where Italian immigrants – mainly from Sicily – started their new lives in America. But the construction of Interstate 5 cut through the entire neighborhood, sending many families out into the newly developed suburban communities outside of downtown.
The neighborhood continued to decline into the 1980s until the early ’90s, when redevelopment efforts were underway thanks to California’s redevelopment act. Businesses and restaurants moved in while the city worked to brand a neighborhood locals knew as the “Italian Colony” into a full-fledged Little Italy, complete with annual street fairs and festivals that drew thousands.
The 48 square blocks that make up Little Italy along the waterfront in downtown San Diego has since become a major tourist draw and is home to one of the most photographed landmarks in San Diego, the Little Italy sign. The neighborhood has become a local leader in creating a successful mixed-use neighborhood where residential and retail merge.
What sets Little Italy apart from other historic ethnic neighborhoods struggling to make it in the 21st century is not the sexiest of solutions, but it’s one that has worked: the Little Italy Association district management corporation.
Managing Little Italy like its own city has allowed the association to get projects done much faster than if they dealt with the bureaucracy of getting all funding from government agencies. With an annual budget of over $2 million, businesses “buy in” through taxes raised by multiple sources including the parking district and business improvement district. The association in turn advocates on behalf of its members on livability issues ranging from safety and beautification to helping promote new businesses.
The association is strategic about which businesses they allow to move in, hand-picking the best restaurants and businesses that fit into the Little Italy aesthetic, while still maintaining its “neighborhood feel” and cultural identity.
Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the association, says he doesn’t care if visitors patronize the shops and restaurants. His goal is to get people to slow down and enjoy quality time with one another.
“They can buy something or not, but they come here to people-watch. People-watching is one of the greatest national pastimes and we provide the venue. Malls can’t provide it – they’re too sterile. We are creating venues for interaction; people come to an area like Little Italy for social interaction,” Li Mandri said.
Li Mandri said the association’s focus on creating usable public spaces in the neighborhood is critical to their success as a gathering place that sets Little Italy apart from other San Diego communities and downtown neighborhoods. The association is currently working on Piazza Famiglia, a square that will be closed to traffic and reminiscent of those found throughout Italy.
Outsiders have taken notice: over the past five years, at least 20 Italian immigrant-run restaurants have opened in Little Italy, skipping over the more traditional East Coast Italian neighborhoods, according to Li Mandri.
“We are the largest and fastest growing Little Italy in the country. Italians are immigrating here to open up their restaurants – they’re not going to Chicago or New York,” Li Mandri said.
Bencotto and Monello owner Valentina Di Pietro is proud of the 800 pounds of 37 different fresh pastas they’ve been making in-house every week since 2009. While Di Pietro and her chef husband Guido have been successful despite opening up their place during the height of the recession, they don’t have plans to expand outside of Little Italy.
Immigrants from Milan, Valentina and Guido set up shop in Little Italy after a stint in New York. Di Pietro said when they made plans to move back to San Diego and open a restaurant, she was hesitant to open in Little Italy because of the “stereotypes” she said Italian neighborhoods in the United States portray.
“I don’t want Americans to think Italians listen to Pavarotti all the time. We’re sophisticated but still modern and casual – there are no red checkered cloths here. The Little Italy in New York is like the stereotype. Little Italy in San Diego is classy, it’s upbeat and clean and it has the vibe of downtown without being downtown,” Di Pietro said.
While Di Pietro believes Little Italy is reaching a “saturation point” for restaurants – something Li Mandri also acknowledged – she said the competition from the new restaurants is her “muse” and she still feels Bencotto stands out among the influx of new eateries. Di Pietro also said their restaurants receive “tons” of resumes from young Italians who want to move to the United States and work in San Diego.
One of the new kids on the block is Napizza, a “new age” pizzeria that touts its Roman-style by-the-slice as some of the healthiest pizza you can eat. Napizza – Roman slang for “pass me a pizza” – opened in 2012 and was the first pizzeria in San Diego to be certified by the Green Restaurant Association, something owner Giulia Colmignoli said was important to them.
Colmignoli said they wanted to fill the void of casual restaurants they noticed among the upscale eateries in Little Italy, which they have done successfully: Colmignoli and her partners have since opened two additional Napizza locations in San Diego.
Opening in Little Italy exposed Napizza to San Diegans from all over the county as well as tourists who stop by the weekly Little Italy Mercato farmers market, Colmignoli said.
“It has helped put our name out there and be successful. Tourists come more in the summer, but locals come here year-round and fill the gaps in the winter. I like the neighborhood feel and see the same faces. I feel like it is its own little city,” Colmignoli said.
Napizza hasn’t received the same support in opening their other locations as they did in Little Italy, which Colmignoli attributes to the Little Italy Association.
“It’s been more difficult to spread the word about the other stores. But a lot of people who come to our other stores have been to our Little Italy location,” Colmignoli said.
“There’s a feeling of family and trust. It gives me a sense of home.”
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