San Diego’s Little Italy, the gentrified former fishing town

“Let’s grab a quick dinner before moving on, shall we do a pizza?”

“Yea, but which pizzeria?”

We had found ourselves in Little Italy, a hip gentrified neighbourhood slightly north of downtown San Diego, and the place was full of restaurants and pizza joints.

We couldn’t tell if there were more pizzerias or Italian flags, since an Italian flag hung from lamp posts almost every metres (well, feet, since we are in America). Just as there’s a Chinatown and Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, San Diego has its own national enclave in Little Italy, and it was packed with pizzerias and restaurants. Considering how seriously Italians take their pizza, I wonder if they’d riot should a Chicago deep dish store open here… 😉

There was a lot of Italian food all around in this place, but all these restaurants and pizzerias sprouted as a result of a more important reason – Italian tuna fishermen.

Tuna is a big thing in the Mediterranean.

The bluefin tuna in particular is a much sought after delicacy and Italians have been fishing tuna for a long time. So when families heard about the abundance of tuna found in the Atlantic of a far away place in the new World, an intrepid few set of to make a killing, in the process turning tuna fishing into a way of life in the city. More Italians from joined from other cities such as San Francisco, after natural disasters forced them out of the latter city. This was the beginning of Little Italy in San Diego. So many Italians moved to fish tuna that San Diego was turned into the “tuna capital of the world“. Tuna fishing was so important that it was the second largest employer in the city after the US military.

The family run businesses eventually came up against modern practices, corporations began to buy up individual tuna canaries, then came the entry of Japanese canned tuna, a glut of tuna, which was cheaper than local San Diego tuna. These decimated the industry and shrunk its global share of the tuna pie. It’s death knell was sounded when an increasingly rich California began to prioritise the environmental impact of fishing – particularly in the accidental catching of dolphin, the last tuna factory was closed in the 1980s.

San Diego is still a great place for hobbyist sportfishermen to catch a diverse set of marine life, and it may once again be more than just a place for enthusiasts to fish.

A recent plan has been hatched to revive the tuna fishing industry in the city, this time placing it as part of the beautiful seaport village/harbour area but making it a “working waterfront” and therefore part of the tourism industry as well, which means that apart from looking pretty the seaport also draws in money from nature through a very traditional San Diego industry.

Once the smell of tuna being canned stopped waffling through the nostrils of its residents, the smell of coffee being roasted and sold came in to take its place. Cafes, restaurants with al-fresco dining, art galleries and private museums opened in the area. A new group of residents moved in and the face of the once working class district was changed.

We went back on another day to grab breakfast, at the aptly named Harbour Breakfast serving traditional American breakfast fare (biscuits and gravy.

“Dude, Seth Rogan just drove past,” said my breakfast mate.

“How do you know”

“His car.”

“Okay… erm, by the way… who’s that?”

My breakfast mate looked at me like I just killed a dolphin…



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