By Vince Meehan
It’s the golden hour at the Piazza della Famiglia in Little Italy, the hour before sunset where the low sun casts a rich golden hue over the neighborhood. The Piazza is filled with people sitting at umbrella-covered tables checking their social media or enjoying a drink. This pleases Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Association of San Diego as he surveys the afternoon crowd.
“The real test of success for any public space is whether people use it or not,” Li Mandri said. “San Diego has some of the poorest public spaces around, so we wanted to create one that works. I’d call this a success.”
Li Mandri noted that an additional goal of the piazza was to create a public space where people could sit down without being compelled to buy something. “Hopefully this will serve as a model for San Diego,” added Li Mandri
The piazza is so successful that the association has ordered an additional 100 chairs for the locals, tourists and workers to enjoy. So what is there to do when you visit the Piazza della Famiglia? An apropos answer would be, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Or in this case … i piccoli italiani (the little Italians)
Traditionally, Europeans are fond of hanging out in public squares to relax and people watch. The Piazza della Famiglia was designed to mimic those public squares, and like the European models, the piazza features an ornate fountain as a centerpiece. Piazza della Famiglia is Italian for “plaza of the family” and the three-tiered fountain represents the families of Little Italy from the past, present and future. The circular fountain features a wide lip around the bottom tier that visitors can sit on as they enjoy the square. This creates an inclusive atmosphere that encourages the same interactivity that the European squares are famous for.
If you want to “do as the Romans do”, then some fresh roasted coffee is definitely a perfect complement to the Italian motif. And you won’t have to go far as the Frost Me Cafe is located on the south side of the piazza. Frost Me Cafe is the only place in San Diego that serves Ritual coffee from San Francisco. The cafe features a full bakery where you can order freshly made muffins, pastries and desserts.
Or if you wish to enjoy a glass of wine, beer, or an authentic Italian cocktail, you can visit the bar located in the Little Italy Food Hall. In an exclusive agreement with the city, patrons can order their drinks at the bar, then take them outside to enjoy in the piazza. This is a unique arrangement that reinforces the European ambiance of the square.
Katie Willis can usually be found working on her laptop at the back end of the Little Italy Food Hall Bar. Willis is the general manager of the hall, which anchors the piazza with its collection of six unique eateries as well as the bar. National franchise food outlets were intentionally left out of the food hall in favor of locally owned businesses featuring a wide variety of culinary choices.
“We like to highlight the local theme of the food hall,” Willis said. “We’re going to host culinary events in the piazza including a monthly live cooking demo featuring our chefs.”
Ambrogio15 is the lone Italian eatery of the food hall and features Milano-style Italian cuisine. They cook thin crust pizza in an open-flame oven brought over from Milan and also feature a wide array of salads and sandwiches. Single Fin Kitchen serves a Japanese-influenced selection of locally caught fish and Wicked! Maine Lobster specializes in East Coast seafood. Not Not Tacos is co-owned by Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien and offers unorthodox tacos filled with meatloaf, pastrami and even curried egg salad. Roast Meat & Sandwich Shop serves as a meat lover’s paradise while Mein St. specializes in Asian-inspired dishes.
The Piazza exudes a safe and secure ambiance, where visitors don’t feel the need to look up or over their shoulder as they sit. The Little Italy Association manages the piazza and has staff that monitors the piazza to keep it safe. This allows the patrons to work on their laptops in security as they enjoy live or piped-in music.
The piazza has quickly become the heart of Little Italy and will host special holiday events as well as culinary-themed parties. Little Italy’s farmers market — known as The Mercato — now flows through the piazza and the Saturday event has been expanded to include Wednesdays as a way for local chefs to gather locally grown produce and spices.
The piazza features live music scattered throughout the week and a special drink cart is opened during peak hours where visitors can grab a quick beer or wine. The piazza is popular on Sundays with churchgoers stopping by after mass and tourists enjoying ice cream from Salt & Straw, which is directly across the street. All in all, the Piazza della Famiglia is the perfect place to chill while you are in Little Italy, and if the mood strikes you … do as the Italians do!
—Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.