Little Italy’s culinary history explored on the page
By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The time was riper than a mid-summer tomato to chronicle the recent explosion of Italian restaurants in San Diego and to frame the history of the long-established ones that still thrive.
Locally based author and food blogger Maria Desiderata Montana has done exactly that (and more) in her latest book, “San Diego Italian Food: A Culinary History of Little Italy and Beyond,” published by The History Press.
As a first-generation Italian who was born and raised in Spokane, WA, she approached the eight-month project armed with a family background steeped in enviable culinary traditions.
Weekends meant rolling out batches of ravioli with her mother, whom she refers to as “the quintessential Italian wife,” while summers signaled the arrival of fresh vegetables that her father cultivated in their large backyard. She goes on to describe snacking on home-cured meats that were hang drying from the rafters of her uncle’s basement.
Her passion for cooking, she recalls, began at 7 years old when helping her mother prepare Christmas Eve dinner at the crack of dawn — hence a collection of favorite recipes from her own kitchen that are included in the book.
Desiderata Montana moved to San Diego in 1994 after marrying and attending college in Seattle. She quickly discovered Mona Lisa Italian Foods and Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in Little Italy for buying salted cod, meats and cheeses for holiday meals.
“The neighborhood was nowhere near as busy as it is today,” she said in a recent interview with San Diego Downtown News, citing that the biggest wave of Italian restaurants opening in Little Italy occurred in the past 10 years, since gentrification to the area began in 1996.
A chapter at the beginning of the book is devoted entirely to Little Italy’s fascinating evolution, replete with historical photographs. Readers are taken through periods when the neighborhood became the center of the tuna industry nearly 100 years ago and to when it disappeared. It progresses to modern day, decades after more than a third of the area was “erased” by the construction of Interstate 5 in the 1970s.
As a restaurant guide, the book provides a comprehensive roundup of San Diego’s Italian kitchens, both old and new. It includes everything from revered mom-and-pop places found off the beaten track, such as Antica Trattoria in La Mesa and Andiamo Ristorante Italiano & Bar in the Tierresanta Gateway Mall, to those fueled by reputable restaurateurs operating multiple ventures — namely Joe Busalacchi, Roberto Vigilucci and Giuseppe Ciuffa.
In many cases, the restaurant owners share anecdotes and inspirations pertaining to their businesses while revealing where they came from and when they learned to cook.
“I knew going into this [book] that Italians want to laugh, have fun and feed you, and that they don’t necessarily like to be interviewed,” she said. “I think the fact that I’m a first-generation Italian-American helped the restaurateurs and chefs feel comfortable in speaking to me.”
Desiderata Montana expectedly avoided naming her favorite restaurants in the book, but revealed to us some of the standout dishes she encountered along the way.
“La Villa in is one of the few Italian restaurants in Little Italy serving farm-to-table cuisine. I love their grilled octopus salad with spicy Calabrese dressing. My parents are from Calabria, so I like spicy Italian food.”
She’s also fond of the veal chop Milanese at The Godfather in Clairemont, which opened in 1974 as one of San Diego’s first upscale Italian restaurants.
“They offer this amazing dish of veal chop seasoned with Italian bread crumbs, pan-fried and finished with besciamella sauce.”
As the wellspring of Italian restaurants continues growing in both Little Italy and other San Diego communities, Desiderate Montana takes comfort in today’s steadfast appreciation of Italian cuisine.
“Italian or not, people adore Italian food and culture. More and more restaurants are popping up and people are still waiting in line for over an hour to get a taste of the delicious pizza and pasta dishes at Filippi’s.”