By Christopher Gomez
Benvenuto, October! It’s officially Italian Heritage Month in the United States. Italian culture’s rich history and traditions are standouts in the United States, resulting in Congress designating October Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month in 1989, honoring the achievements and contributions of Italian immigrants and their descendants.
More than 26 million Italians have established roots in the United States, officially deeming Italian-Americans as the seventh largest ethnic group in the country. There are many ways this can be celebrated: from food and ancestral relations, or indulging in Italian-American films, literature and art, the opportunities to pay homage Italian lineage are endless!
San Diego’s Little Italy is just the place to visit to indulge in Italian-American history and culture, with its history going back nearly a century. The waterfront neighborhood is San Diego’s oldest continually active district. In the 1920s, this waterfront neighborhood became Little Italy as Italian fisherman and their families began settling in the area to be close to San Diego’s bustling tuna industry. At one point, San Diego was known as, “The Tuna Capital of the West Coast,” due to the 6,000 immigrant families populating Little Italy and the successful canneries that called our Embarcadero home. From dining to arts and culture, Little Italy San Diego thrives as the hub of the Italian-American culture in San Diego.
Here are our must-see historical favorites in the neighborhood in honor of Italian Heritage Month:
The Oldest Restaurant in Little Italy
Vincent DePhilippis was born in New York, NY and raised in Naples, Italy before he returning to New York City at the age of 18. He married Madeleine Manfredi in 1925 and they moved to San Diego in 1947, where they opened the Italian market Cash & Carry Italian Foods on India Street. 1950 was the start of their successful line of family restaurants we know today as Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, originally named D’Filippi’s. Little Italy’s Filippi’s Pizza Grotto is the first of the family line of eateries and the oldest restaurant in Little Italy – a perfect place to celebrate Italian Heritage Month with a bite to eat!
Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church
Established in 1925, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church guided fisherman safely to shore and is the spiritual home to many families who helped build the Church almost 100-years ago. Our Lady of the Rosary Church became the center of spiritual, social and cultural life in Little Italy. Today, it’s still a pillar of the Italian community and is a cornerstone for historical preservation of our neighborhood. Completing the $2.5M historical renovation earlier this year, the jewel of Little Italy recently won the 2021 Preservation Design Award for Craftsmanship/Preservation Technology. Hosting Mass daily at 7 a.m., you can visit the church in-person or virtually on their livestream!
Little Italy Landmark Sign
Lit for the first time in October 2000 at the 7th Annual Little Italy FESTA!, the Little Italy Landmark Sign commemorates the neighborhood’s history as the hub of the world’s tuna fishing and canning industry until the 1960s. The sign’s nautical theme represents the neighborhood’s original immigrant community with portholes at the top of the pillars, blue neon lettering and cables that hold the sign up. The mosaic tile work on each side of the street shares the story of the historical community’s tie to the bay, the Church, Washington Elementary School, and the Italian homeland. The sign is a testament to the preservation of Little Italy’s cultural heritage and the ongoing innovation of this urban ethnic community.
Amici Park is a triple-threat when it comes to public spaces. The Little Italy Dog Park is a safe, enclosed space for the neighborhood pets to run around and play together, including an internally fenced off area for smaller dogs and Café Caritàzza – a quaint coffee bar for tired dog parents. The Amici Park Amphitheater is the perfect place to sit and relax during the day. At night, the space transforms, especially during the summer months, where the Little Italy Association and the Cinema Little Italy screen Italian films every Saturday evening for The Little Italy Summer Film Festival. The Little Italy Bocce Courts gives everyone a chance to get in on the traditional game of bocce. If you’ve never played, Little Italy is the best place to learn. You’ll find the Little Italy Bocce Ball club team out playing every weekday – just ask to join in!
The Amici (Friend) House is a historic house in Little Italy. Antonio Giacalone and his wife, Josephine, arrived in 1916 and were part of the Italian fishing community in the neighborhood. Mr. Giacalone was considered one of the best fishermen with the community dubbing him as “Cadorna,” which translates to, “the general.” Originally from Sicily, the Giacalones were active in the local community and the Church and generous with their hospitality. The Giacalone Family home was originally located on W. Date Street between Columbia and India Streets, where the Piazza della Famiglia stands today. In 2014, when the Piazza della Famiglia broke ground, the Little Italy Association partnered with HG Fenton to move the house to Amici Park on W. Date and Union Streets and preserve the historic home. Now known as Amici House, it’s home to Convivio.
Piazza della Famiglia
Piazza della Famiglia opened in March of 2018 and instantly became a staple in Little Italy. This 10,000-square-foot European-style piazza on W. Date Street, connecting India and Columbia Streets, includes a beautiful tiled fountain sitting at the East side of the Piazza and tables and chairs with umbrellas line the cobblestone street—inviting the public to take in the beautiful scene and San Diego Bay views over lunch, coffee or a gathering with friends and family. Piazza della Famiglia is located in the “heart” of Little Italy and is dedicated to the past, present and future families of the Little Italy neighborhood. It has become a central community gathering place to host farmers’ markets, concerts, cultural events and more.
Piazza Basilone was created in November of 2003 to honor GySgt John Basilone and the “Boys That Never Came Home” from the wars in the 20th century. Piazza Basilone stands as a permanent mark in time, celebrating the lives of the fallen and GySgt Basilone’s heroism and the accolades that he received while serving this county. This piazza is used as a gathering space for families and veterans, as well as a space for special events and more.
Piazza Pescatore was created in 2013, located in Broadstone Little Italy. This Piazza honors the rich history of San Diego’s Little Italy by memorializing the tuna industry, which brought national recognition to our neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. To immortalize the history of Little Italy, bronze and classic mosaic tile work adorn this beautiful space.
Piazza Giannini was created in 2018 in honor of Amadeo Giannini, a distinguished Italian-American and Californian, who founded the Bank of Italy, which he later transformed into one of the largest banks in the world, Bank of America. This 500-square-foot public space includes a bust and pedestal, a plaque telling Giannini’s story, concrete planters and barriers, street furniture, and tables and chairs with umbrellas. It resides on the corner of India and W. Cedar Streets.
Piazza Constanza was created in 2020 in honor of Margaret “Midge” Costanza, a social and political activist who served as a top advisor to President Jimmy Carter. She always fought for the rights and dignity of all people, particularly women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups. The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Midge Costanza became the first City councilwoman in Rochester, New York in 1973. She later rose to become the first female Assistant to a U.S. President. Midge moved to San Diego in the 1980s where she was active in numerous organizations and issues. This Piazza sits on the corner of Columbia St. and W. Ash, directly outside of the Luma apartments.
We’d love to see you taking in our community and Italian heritage this month to pay tribute to Italian Heritage Month. Come stroll the neighborhood, learn about our culture and don’t forget to make a reservation at one of our many restaurants!
— Christopher Gomez has been Little Italy’s District Manager since 2000. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.