Discover the Charm of Little Italy. San Diego’s Hidden Gem

One of the most charming and idyllic cities on this state’s golden coast, San Diego has so many options for entertainment and delight. Nestled in the heart of America’s Finest City lies a cultural gem that captures the essence of Italy without ever leaving the shores of California. So when I planned a special “Mom + Me” staycation with my 16-year-old daughter last month, I would have been hard pressed to find a more ideal locale than Little Italy, San Diego.

As the most venerable, continuously existing neighborhood business district downtown, Little Italy was originally the place many immigrant Italian and Portuguese fishing families called home. The canneries that processed their catches dotted the coastline – earning the area the well-deserved moniker of “tuna capital of the Western U.S.” – a distinction the district enjoyed until the late 1970s when increasing competition from foreign tuna processors spelled the untimely demise of the beloved community’s chief economic engine.

Carte Hotel

Today, the once quaint fishing village is a bustling neighborhood is rife with rich history, beautiful retail spaces, breweries, wineries, galleries, lovely hotels and authentic eateries showcasing cuisine from both Northern and Southern Italy.

Where to stay

For this overnight mother/daughter adventure, I was hoping for a locale steps away from the heart of all the activities and attraction and couldn’t have selected a lovelier accommodation than the chic Carte Hotel (a Curio Collection by Hilton property). An ode to its locale, its ambiance calls on the coastal environs to influence not only the chosen color palette in soothing shades of blue, but also in its decor defined by beach-inspired art elements. Replete with elevated amenities, this stylish, airy and light-filled 16-story boutique hotel was an ideal home base – literally a short stroll to the bay and within easy walking distance to virtually everything we wanted to experience during our stay from the aforementioned restaurants to the San Diego Bay and bayfront Embarcadero.

Carte Hotel features 246 individualized and modern guest rooms (think sophisticated design and expansive views a la floor-to-ceiling windows), a 28,000-square-foot Fit Athletic Club, heated saltwater pool and whirlpool and the cherry on top – Above Ash, a gorgeous rooftop venue with spectacular views of the city skyline and the bay beyond – with numerous fire pits and an enormous LED TV wall for viewing sporting events or outdoor movies.

A day at leisure

Arguably, its “crown jewel,” the 10,000-square-foot European- style Piazza della Famiglia – located in the “heart” of the Little Italy neighborhood on W. Date Street – connects India and Columbia Streets. A beautiful tiled fountain sits at the east side and tables and chairs with umbrellas line the cobblestone street—inviting the public to take in the San Diego Bay views over a leisurely meal with friends and family.

Co-Owners Ashton (L) and Gia

With that in mind, the first stop on our itinerary was to fuel up for the day’s activities and landed on a decidedly different brunch experience than we’ve ever enjoyed. Not your typical breakfast nook, Morning Glory (morningglorybreakfast.com) is a stunning pink palace of global breakfast goodness defined by expertly executed dishes and a hilariously written menu festooned with equally inspired illustrations. But the real showstopper here is the dizzying array of egg dishes, pancake options (think fluffy, delicate) and even “breakfast dim sum” served via a roaming Bodega queen on the weekends (which is worth writing home about – super yummy and fun).

Popular picks? Seasonal skillet pancakes, ginger fried rice, the caviar tasting (soft scrambled eggs, Royal White sturgeon caviar), the French omelet (a barely set, rolled-style omelet enhanced with goat cheese and chives) and a Lobster Benedict with buttered leeks, poached eggs and Bernaise.

Little Italy beckons with a wellness-centric charm with a plethora of hair and nail salons, spa services and a variety of retail shops. Post brunch, our next stop was for a bit of pampering with mid-afternoon facials at Brazilia Skin Care (BraziliaSkinCare.com). Established in San Diego over two decades ago by Exelda Imeran, Brazilia remains a woman-owned small business and is operated by her two daughters Gia and Ashton.

Brazilia’s highly experienced and skilled aestheticians certainly knew how to get our skin glowing. The award-winning beauty and wellness spa offers just about every day spa service imaginable for men and women ranging from the luxurious facials that my daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed to specialized skin peels, massages, body wraps, body bronzing, microderm abrasion, lashes and lash extensions, custom eyebrow shaping (via waxing or threading) and bikini-ready Brazilian waxing.

Destination dining

As they say … “when in Rome” … we were excited to experience a “new generation of Italian cuisine – fresh, light and authentic Calabrian cuisine at Civico 1845 (civico1845.com). The restaurant (which also bears the distinction of being the very first in the nation with a full vegan Italian menu) pays homage to the owners Dario and Pietro Gallo’s Southern Italian roots and reflects what is being served in Italy today. With a menu that focuses on locally grown seasonal ingredients, the brothers strive to “bring to the United States this transformation of simplicity where tradition meets health; every bite tells a story of timeless flavors refined for modern well-being.”

Morning Glory

For our part, all my daughter and I knew was that each plate that arrived featured memorably mouthwatering cuisine. The Fritto di Mare – lightly fried calamari, shrimp, zucchini and lime mayo – was a hit with my daughter, who is a bit of a connoisseur having sampled her fair share of variations of the popular appetizer over the years. The Fusilli alla Norma arrived as homemade fusilli pasta (is there anything better than pasta made from scratch?) with tomato sauce, eggplant, buffalo mozzarella and basil while the seared salmon with pesto risotto was exceptionally delicious.

As indulgent meals were clearly a theme of this excursion, we welcomed an opportunity for one last decadent dish before heading home. Inspired by exploring the history of the islands and Latin American regions of the Caribbean Ocean, the menu at Coco Maya (inlovewiththecoco.com) showcases European flavors and cooking techniques with the core of the kitchen coming from the coal-fired Josper oven. Hints of ocean, smoke and char reverberate through all of the dishes.

A daily brunch menu features unique options I discovered for the first time including the Bokit – a fry bread from the islands of Guadeloupe stuffed with scrambled egg, hashbrown, cheese sauce and cherrywood bacon – yum! The Lobster Caviar Benedict and the Very Berry French Toast are the definition of decadence. The first arrives with a pair of poached eggs, Maine lobster claw, osetra caviar, tarragon Hollandaise sauce atop Kolache bread (a sweet Czech pastry), while the latter starts with the same Kolache bread enhanced with fresh seasonal fruit and Marscapone cream.

Civico 1845

With its rich tapestry of culture, cuisine, and community spirit, it’s no wonder that this charming neighborhood continues to enchant visitors from near and far. We thoroughly enjoyed immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds and flavors of Little Italy and would welcome an opportunity for a similar return sojourn in the not-too-distant future. Buon viaggio!

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