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.