Italians were some of the first European explorers and settlers in California. Religious work and the search for new fishing grounds were initial reasons for Italians to explore what later became the thirty-first state, but their reasons for staying, expanded after arriving in California. Though we often associate Italians in California with San Francisco, the initial settlers, who were from the region of Liguria in Italy, established themselves in such diverse communities as Monterey, Stockton and San Diego during the years of Spanish Rule. The arrival of the”Genovesi” in California, beginning in the 1850’s, coincided with the early development of the state. It wasn’t long before Italian fishermen had established themselves in fishing villages from Eureka to Benicia, Martinez, Pittsburg, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Monterey. By the 1880’s, California had become a leading fishery and its coastal waters were dominated by Italian fishermen and their graceful sailing “feluccas”.
The Italian immigrants who settled near downtown San Diego in the 1920s were mostly fishermen from Genoa and Sicily. They worked on or owned fishing boats and opened seafood markets or processing plants. Also, many Italians moved to San Diego from San Francisco after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in search of tuna and other deep-sea sport and commercial fish.
The example of Joseph Busalacchi is typical of the Italian fisherman who left fishing and succeeded as a merchandiser of ocean products. Mr. Busalacchi was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1899 and came to San Diego in 1921 to join his brother Mario, who was a fisherman there. In 1925, Joe opened a small market at Fifth and E Streets. Soon after this, the owner of the Union Fish Company, Anthony Trapani, asked Joe to work for him. Mr. Busalacchi worked for the Union Fish Company for nineteen years, most of the time as manager. In 1944 Mr. Trapani retired and left the business to Joe and to the bookkeeper of the company, George Bissel. In 1950 Mr. Busalacchi bought out Bissel’s share. When the Navy took over the company’s location at the foot of Market Street, Mr. Busalacchi opened a new storage and freezer plant at 1004 Morena Boulevard, where it is still located. Then, in 1965, Mr. Busalacchi opened the Sportsman’s Seafood Market at 1617 Quivira Road, where he sold fresh fish and provided smoking and canning services for sportsmen who brought in their catch.
Women of the Italian fishing families also made their contribution. For example, Catherine Bregante was born in Riva Trigoso, Italy, on the seacoast not far from Genoa. In 1912 her family came to San Diego and settled at 2136 Columbia Street. In 1916 her father, Anthony, opened a small fish market on F Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. Catherine and her brother Anthony, Jr., operated the market. In 1926 the store moved to a larger location at the foot of Broadway, where both wholesale and retail business was conducted. A food counter was installed and seafood cocktails and chowder were served and the company prospered through the depression years. Michael Ghio, Catherine’s husband since 1916, worked in the Bregante business, however, in 1934 Michael Ghio died. Catherine supported her children by continuing to work in the seafood restaurant. In 1946 when her sons, Tod and Anthony, came home from service in the war, they opened the first Anthony’s Grotto, a restaurant on the wharf with a seating capacity of sixteen. From the first Grotto the business grew into a multi-outlet industry with about 600 employees and an annual payroll in excess of $4 million.
Commercial fishing is a risky enterprise that requires hard work, a willingness to take a chance and the propensity to rely on one’s own ability to survive. All successful fishermen have had, and still have, these qualities. The Italian fishermen, however, had another trait that was vital to the success of the San Diego fishing industry. This trait was an entrepreneurial instinct that impelled them to develop the fresh fish marketing structure that first encouraged the fishing business to grow. Those early fishing boats, which were built and then enlarged to supply that market, were the foundation upon which the modern tuna fleet was built. Although fishing, which the Italians dominated, is now a minor part of San Diego’s industry, it must be recognized that the city’s seafood industry has its roots in that early Italian fishing/marketing structure.
Source: Center for Migration Studies and San Diego History Center.
When Italian immigrants settled along San Diego’s waterfront in the early 1900s, they formed the “Italian Colony,” a tightly knit community that provided refuge and a shared culture and heritage. Extended families, new businesses and church traditions formed the foundation for a lasting social code. It was no coincidence that the area would become known as “Little Italy”—it was exactly that for its inhabitants—a home away from their native land. But by the mid-1960s, changes brought by war and urban modernization began to unravel the community. By the early 40s, thousands of Italian families lived in San Diego and the fishing community was the center of the Pacific Coast tuna industry, but Italy’s involvement in World War II — and the restrictions the US government imposed on Italians in America — limited the fishermen’s livelihood. After the war, competition from Japanese fishing fleets and new industry regulations further impaired the fishing industry. In the late 50s, the landscape of the neighborhood was drastically changed with the construction of Interstate 5. The Interstate construction destroyed 35% of the neighborhood and, during the same time period, the California tuna industry began to decline which caused the neighborhood to suffer economically.
In the past 20 years, San Diego’s Little Italy has experienced a resurgence. The Little Italy Association was formed in 1996 and has implemented street improvements, renovations and new buildings to create a thriving waterfront community filled with retail and professional businesses, restaurants, specialty stores and artwork depicting the Italian American experience.
Thanks to Italian American residents, like Sicilian baker and Sicilian Heritage Foundation organizer, Mario Cefalu, San diego’s “Little italy” is thriving once again. The area is beautifully maintained and full of tributes to the Italian history of the block. Every Saturday the Mercato, Little Italy’s Farmers’ Market, offers food, flowers and merchandise with an Italian perspective. Carnevale, a Sicilian Festival, Taste of Little Italy, a restaurant tour with special menus and live music, Art Walks through studios and galleries and a Christmas tree lighting ceremony are some of the annual events. In October, Our Lady of the Rosary Church holds a procession that has been an annual event for more than 50 years and the Little Italy Festa is one of the largest Italian festivals in America.
India Street is lined with restaurants, sidewalk cafes and shops and, most of them are new, coming after the renewal projects. For some of the best pizza on the block, served in appropriately decorated Italian American checked-tablecloth-fashion, head to Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (1747 India St.). Vincent De Philippis and his wife Madeleine came to America in 1922 and in 1950 opened a deli on India Street. That deli expanded into a small pizza empire named, Filippi’s. If it’s pasta you’re after, try family run Assenti’s Pasta (2044 India St.), offering homemade pasta.
Italian Seafood Cuisine from San Diego
Steamed Mussels with White Wine & Chiles
You should buy the mussels on the day that you are going to cook them. Scrub and debeard them in advance of cooking.
- 4 lbs mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon flat leafed parsley, plus a little for garnish
- 4 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 red chiles finely chopped
- 1 large baguette
Place the olive oil in a large wide pot over medium heat.
Add the garlic and saute for about 2 minutes.
Add the scallions and the chiles and saute for another minute.
Add the mussels and toss quickly to coat.
Add the white wine and and cover the pot.
Continue to cook over a medium-high heat for about 3 minutes or until the mussels begin to open.
Add the tablespoon of chopped parsley and toss to combine.
Continue cooking until all the mussels have opened. Discard any mussels that do not open.
Place the mussels in warmed serving bowls or one large bowl (family style) and spoon over the wine mixture.
Sprinkle with the additional parsley and serve with the baguette. for dipping
Tuna with Tomato-Caper Sauce
Makes 2 servings
- 2 tuna steaks (such as albacore or yellowfin; each about 6 oz. and 1 in. thick)
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion (8 oz.), peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 1 can (14 1/2 oz.) crushed tomatoes in purée
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon drained capers
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
Pat tuna steaks dry with paper towels. Sprinkle lightly all over with salt and pepper. Pour oil into a 10- to 12-inch nonstick frying pan over high heat. When hot, add onion and stir frequently until limp, about 5 minutes.
Push onion to the side of the pan and add tuna steaks. Cook, turning once, just until browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes total. Stir in crushed tomatoes, wine, vinegar, capers and oregano.
Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until tuna is no longer pink in the center (cut to test), about 15 minutes. Transfer tuna to plates and top equally with sauce.
Chef Geno Bernardo
- 8 ounces cooked linguine
- 4 per serving of shrimp
- 2 ounces cooked Alaskan king crab meat, per serving
- 1/2 per serving of Maine lobster tail, claw, elbow (with tail shell, cut into pieces)
- 4 per serving of Little Neck clams or Manila clams
- 2 ounces calamari, per serving
- 8 per serving of mussels
- 1/2 cup basil leaves
- 3/4 cup celery, cut into thin strips
- 3/4 cup fennel, cut into thin strips
- 3/4 cup leeks, cut into thin strips
- 3 ounces butter
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
For seafood marinara:
- 1 cup lobster stock (made from lobster shells)
- 1 teaspoon toasted saffron
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed, toasted and ground
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1 quart tomato basil marinara
For seafood marinara:
Mix ingredients together in a bowl.
In a small pot steam the mussels and clams in the wine.
In a large skillet sauté the shrimp and calamari. Add the seafood marinara. Add the basil, vegetables, butter and linguine.
Season to taste and serve family-style topped with the crabmeat and lobster.
Cracker-Crusted Pacific Cod with White Polenta
Steve Black Executive Chef at the Sheraton Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island – his comments on this dish.
“At a recent offsite gig, our client chose the humble Pacific codfish for their main course because it is one of the best-eating fish and it comes from a healthy, sustainable stock unlike the Atlantic codfish that continue to struggle. Atlantic cod have been overfished in the Gulf of Maine for decades. I paired the fish with white polenta, another favorite that comes out creamy and delicious the way we slow-simmer it, adding in a lot of cheese. I wanted to give the plate some color to make it visually appealing so I added the roasted roma tomatoes, asparagus and some edible flowers.You can find white polenta in specialty food stores and I like it as it’s less grainy than regular polenta. Just like all polentas, it does bloom up a bit so I would say 12 to 16 ounces is plenty for this dish and will leave you with some leftovers.‘
For the Creamy White Polenta:
- 12 ounces White Polenta
- 2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Tablespoon Chopped Garlic & Shallots
- 2-3 Pints Chicken Base/Stock
- 1 Pint Heavy Cream
- 1 Wheel Herbed Boursin Cheese
- 1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan
- 1/4 Cup Mascarpone Cheese
- 1/4 Cup Chopped Chives
- Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
For the Cracker-Crusted Cod:
- 6 Boneless Cod Fillets (6 to 7 ounces)
- 1 Large Egg
- 1/4 Cup Whole Milk
- 1/4 Cup Flour
- 2-3 Tablespoons Seasoning Salt
- 2 Sleeves Ritz Crackers, ground up fine
- 1/2 Cup Panko Bread Crumbs
- 1/2 Cup Canola Oil
- 30 Pieces Blanched Green Asparagus
- 1 Cup Oven Roasted Roma Tomatoes (coated in olive oil and roasted for 30 minutes at 200 degrees)
- 4 Ounces Sweet Butter
- Lemon vinaigrette, directions below
Start by making the polenta. Take a stockpot and heat up the olive oil along with the chopped garlic and shallots. Simmer on low heat for five minutes.
Turn up the heat and add the polenta, starting with two pints of chicken base or stock (you can always add more) and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a low, gentle simmer and cover the pot. Let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
Take a look to see how the water has been absorbed. Now you can add the heavy cream and all three cheeses. Cover and let simmer again for 15 to 20 minutes. You will also want to taste the liquid and add some salt and pepper and even some extra chicken stock if need be.
The polenta is almost done at this point. You are looking for the same consistently of loose mashed potatoes. You may have to simmer with the cover removed for the liquid to evaporate quicker. Once you have the right consistency and flavor, place the polenta on the side, covered. Just before service, you can stir fresh chives into the polenta.
I like to make the preserved lemon vinaigrette by using a basic dressing and simply blending in some preserved lemons. You could also use fresh orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit or whatever juice you want. Put half a bottle of champagne vinaigrette into a blender with a quarter-cup of preserved lemons (we make our own here in the hotel and I add sugar instead of straight salt for a better-flavored preserved lemon). Blend at high speed for two minutes and taste. Adjust the seasoning with sugar, salt and pepper or sweet orange juice or lemonade. Turn the blender on high again and drizzle in a half-cup of olive oil. You can make this in advance and store in the fridge.
Now it’s time to move on to the fish. Combine the crackers and the panko crumbs. Mix the egg, milk and seasoning salt together. Add the flour and whip until you have a thick batter. Pour enough of the egg batter over the fish to create an even coat of batter on the fillets. You only need a little as the Ritz/panko mix will adhere to the batter really well. If you want to make this healthier, use olive oil to coat the fish instead of the egg batter.
Bread each piece of cod with the Ritz/panko mix and set aside.
Take a saute pan and heat to medium, add the canola oil and then brown off the battered fish on both sides. I prefer to brown the fish quickly and then finish roasting it in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes until the internal temp hits 145.
Spread your dried tomatoes on a pan and heat up in the oven. While the fish is roasting melt the butter in a sauté pan and heat up your asparagus. Season with salt and pepper.
Mix the chives into your white polenta and spoon a nice portion onto each plate followed by the asparagus and tomatoes. Top with the cod, drizzle some vinaigrette on top, garnish and serve.
Basil & Artichoke Crusted Halibut
Steve Black Executive Chef at the Sheraton Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island.
“While there are a lot of ingredients used in this recipe, it’s really relatively simple to prepare. The preparation combines many fresh flavors with one of the best-tasting, flaky fish out there —halibut. The braised fennel and tomato sauce used on the halibut is also delicious on just about any other seafood, including shrimp and mahimahi to name a few.”
- 6 Ounces fresh cleaned basil leaves
- 6 Ounces drained, marinated artichoke hearts
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 Tablespoon grated lemon zest
- 1 Teaspoon chopped garlic
- 6 Ounces extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 Cup grated parmesan
- Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
- 6 pieces halibut fillets weighing 6 to 7 ounces each
- 4 Ounces Japanese panko breadcrumbs
- 3 oz. Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 Cup diced fennel
- 1/2 Cup diced onion
- ½1/2Cup diced zucchini
- 1/2 Cup diced red pepper
- 1/2 Cup diced yellow squash
- 1/2 Cup diced eggplant
- 1 Tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1/2 Cup white wine
- 2 Cups marinara sauce
- 1/4 Cup chopped basil
- 1/2 Tablespoon fresh chopped thyme
- 1/2 Cup heavy cream
For this recipe, I like to start off by making the braised fennel and tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil on medium high in a saucepot. Add the fennel, onion, zucchini, red pepper, squash, eggplant, garlic and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and saute for three minutes, then turn down the heat to a simmer and add the wine and marinara. Let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes. Add the heavy cream and simmer another 15 minutes until the sauce reduces and thickens. The vegetables will turn soft with the tomato cream sauce for a nice consistency. Pull from the heat, taste for seasoning and add the basil and hold on the side.
Now move on to making the crust for your halibut. In a mixer or hand immersion blender, puree the basil, artichoke hearts, lemon juice, lemon zest and garlic. Add a quarter cup of the parmesan and then drizzle in four ounces of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and set this mix in the refrigerator.
Season the halibut fillets with salt and pepper on both sides and in a medium size nonstick sauté pan, add two ounces of olive oil and let it come up to heat. Add in the fish, letting each side sizzle until brown.
Once both sides of the fish are seared, remove the pan from the heat and spread the basil/artichoke mix on the top of each fillet. Mix the panko crumbs with two ounces of grated parmesan and then top the basil/artichoke mix with the breadcrumbs and finish the fish by baking it in a 350-degree oven for 10 more minutes.
For plating, spoon the fennel-tomato sauce into the bottom of a bowl and top with the cooked halibut.
Yellowtail & Lobster Stew
Steve Black Executive Chef at the Sheraton Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island.
” I went on a five-day trip on the Royal Polaris a while back and the yellowtail fishing was incredible with anglers loading up on fish up to 40 pounds. With the yellowtail season on the horizon, I thought I’d share this incredibly simple recipe that can be used with lobster to create more of a Northeast-style stew or chowder. I had to add the fresh yellowtail I brought home from that trip and man, was it good! “
- 1.5 Pounds of spiny baja lobster, steamed, meat removed, cut into large chunks
- 1 Pound fresh yellowtail, (a type of Amberjack) seasoned and cut into large chunks
- 8 ozs. Sweet butter
- 4 ozs. Extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 ozs. Cognac
- 1 Tablespoon Paprika
- 2 Cups heavy cream
- 2 Cups evaporated milk
- 2 Cups whole milk
- 1/4 Cup chopped fresh chives
- Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
In a large saucepan, heat up the oil and butter. Add the yellowtail and brown the meat for three minutes. Add the lobster and cognac and flame off the alcohol.
Add the paprika, heavy cream, evaporated milk and whole milk, chives and salt and pepper, and let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, but keep an eye on it. You do not want to let this to come to a boil or it may curdle the milk. Let the stew simmer until all of the flavors are well combined.
The stew should take on a nice red color from the paprika and lobster meat. Taste the stew to check the seasoning and then serve with crisp, warm bread.
- Milwaukee’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Italians In Texas (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- https://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/06/14/little-italy-new-orleans-style/Birmingham, Alabama’s “Little Italy” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- West Virginia’s Little Italy Communities (jovinacooksitalian.com)
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