Everywhere You Need to Eat in Little Italy Right Now

From casual to fine dining Italian fare, plus picturesque rooftops and globally inspired restaurants, here are the most exciting spots to eat in San Diego’s Little Italy.

Herb & Wood
Photo by Dustin Bailey, courtesy of Herb & Wood

Once a humble fishing community with boats and canneries lining the waterfront, iconic Little Italy has transformed over the last 100 years into one of San Diego’s most exciting neighborhoods. This resilient Italian enclave has experienced ups and downs (the former “Tuna Capital of the World” experienced decline in the ‘70s and ’80s), but lately, it’s consistently ranked as one of the most desirable areas to live in with a reputation as an all-star dining mecca. Drawing ambitious chefs and restaurateurs from all over the world, Little Italy offers up something for everyone, from sushi to brunch spots to seafood and regional Italian. Within this dynamic cultural hub, which is the largest Little Italy in the US, Old World meets New World, fine dining meets fast casual, and traditional Italian fare meets globally inspired cuisine. Below, read on for 20 must-try restaurants to visit in Little Italy.

Camino Riviera
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Camino Riviera

Camino Riviera feels like it’s been lifted straight from Tulum and planted in Little Italy—taking over the space of what was once neighborhood fixture El Camino. The stylish restaurant/bar is outfitted with hanging macrame planters and tropical greenery—designed to look like a disco party in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula jungle. Listed in both Mexican pesos and American dollars, the menu offers playful novelties: inspired by Taco Bell’s flatbread-wrapped hard shell taco, the Beef Salpicón “Gordita Crunch” swaps out the flatbread for a bao, resulting in a soft-meets-crunchy textural sensation topped with shredded Wagyu beef. One of the most talked-about dishes is “The Taco”—a sea bass filet fried in squid ink tempura batter, blanketed with edible gold leaf, and placed on two tortillas. Meanwhile, the bar crafts cocktails that highlight many traditional ingredients and native dishes of Mexico’s Riviera Maya region—like cochinita pibil, papadzules, and moles. You’ll also find a variety of small-batch mezcals, served in little sipping cups called copitas that are sourced directly from artisans in Tlaquepaque and Oaxaca.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Bencotto Italian Kitchen
Photo courtesy of Bencotto Italian Kitchen

If you’re on a pasta pilgrimage, Bencotto is your temple. Inspired by Milanese and Northern Italian cuisine, the restaurant produces about 1,000 pounds of fresh pasta in-house every week—which it used to make signature dishes like Tagliatelle al Nero di Seppia (black squid ink fettuccine in spicy shrimp bisque) and Ravioli al Tartufo (ricotta- and porcini-stuffed pockets in truffle cream sauce). You can also opt for the weekly rotating pasta that’s tossed in a 60-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or simply order “pasta your way,” which allows you to choose your own noodles and sauce with the option to add proteins like chicken or meatballs. No matter what you’re ordering, there’s no way you’re leaving Bencotto without devouring a giant plate of noodles.
How to book: Walk-ins welcome, although making reservations online is highly recommended. Order pickup or delivery via their website.

Rarely does the design of a restaurant impress as much as its food, but that happens to be the case at Kettner Exchange. An homage to San Diego founding father William Kettner, this stunning, 10,000-square-foot, indoor-outdoor space—including a sprawling rooftop patio with private cabanas for dining—is the ideal spot for boozy brunches and dinner dates. The globally inspired menu provides a taste for everyone; by day, you’ll find Okonomiyaki Roasted Potatoes, Hummus Halloumi Toast, and pork-belly-stuffed Pig Mac “Bao”, and by night, you’ll dig into Spicy Tuna Crispy Rice, Sonoma Lamb Szechuan Noodles, and Harissa-Grilled Selva Shrimp. The cocktail menu is equally creative; tequila gets a kick from poblano chile liqueur and paprika oil, while Venezuelan rum is sweetened with coffee liqueur, banana, and salted plantains.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Ballast Point Little Italy
Photo courtesy of Ballast Point Little Italy

Ballast Point is undoubtedly one of San Diego’s most beloved beer institutions, helping to shape the craft brew scene at both a local and national level. Thanks to an expansive indoor-outdoor space decked out with private cabanas ideal for large groups, the brewery’s family-friendly tasting room/restaurant in Little Italy is perfect for whittling away an afternoon. Beer lovers can choose from over 50 on tap—ranging from the award-winning Sculpin IPA (a hoppy beer with hints of apricot, peach, mango, and lemon) to the crisp, complex California Kölsch and refreshingly tangy Wahoo White—but the wine list is just as comprehensive and well-thought-out. Hearty bites and entrees mean you won’t go hungry either, thanks to Pretzel Bites dunked in Sculpin beer cheese, the Ballast Point Burger enhanced with sauerkraut and IPA pickles, and Beer Steamed Mussels (they use Wahoo White!) with salty, meaty bits of Spanish chorizo.
How to book: Walk-ins only, although making reservations is recommended for large groups by calling 619-255-7213.

The Crack Shack
Photo courtesy of The Crack Shack

This fried chicken sandwich concept launched in 2015, when owner Michael Rosen turned the abandoned shack next to his fine-dining sensation Juniper & Ivy into something more accessible, but no less delicious. Although the outdoor venue has picnic-style seating, cornhole, and a decidedly casual vibe, the emphasis is on local, thoughtfully sourced, and, whenever possible, organic ingredients: Jidori Farms in Los Angeles provides non-GMO, humanely raised birds that have lived on an all-natural feed diet; Gonestraw Farms in Riverside supplies farm-fresh eggs from free-range chickens; and micro-artisan bakeries are responsible for making Crack Shack’s bread (sans preservatives). Even the sauces are made from scratch daily and rotate based on seasonal produce. Although you can’t go wrong with a tray of wings and drumsticks fried to an earth-shattering crunch, the menu also has hearty sandwiches, bowls, and sides—like Schmaltz Fries or Mini Biscuits smeared with miso-maple butter—all of which are exceptionally delicious.
How to book: Walk-ins only. Order pickup or delivery via their website.

Landini's Pizzeria
Photo courtesy of Landini's Pizzeria

It’s not easy to stand out in a neighborhood swarming with pizza spots. But Landini’s—which opened its first location in Little Italy during the 2009 recession—has managed to keep customers coming back year after year. While slick-looking pizzerias proffering fancy, gourmet pies continue to proliferate, Landini’s is as no-nonsense as they come with a walk-up counter, informal patio seating, and competitively priced specials (a slice and glass of prosecco will set you back $12.50). Husband-and-wife owners Leo and Christine Landini (the former immigrated from Florence, Italy 20 years ago, while the latter is a San Diego native) sling New York-style pies: thin, foldable slices dripping with molten cheese that are loaded with toppings—from the Meatball Ricotta Marinara (a must-try!) to the Rustica (Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and balsamic glaze). The pet-friendly space also hosts a monthly yappy hour called Doggies on the Deck! to raise funds for different rescues around San Diego.
How to book: Walk-ins only. Order pickup or delivery via their website.

Juniper & Ivy
Photo courtesy of Juniper & Ivy

Recognized as a Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand establishment, Juniper & Ivy is one of San Diego’s most critically acclaimed restaurants—the place that immediately comes to mind when you want to splurge, impress someone, or celebrate a special occasion. While Top Chef champ Richard Blais started off as the founding chef, executive chef and James Beard semifinalist Anthony Wells has continued to carry the torch—so the food remains consistently superb, sophisticated, and imaginative (think: Carne Cruda Asada Toast with beef tartare and egg yolk jam, or Uni Linguine unexpectedly served with chorizo and cotija cheese). In order to highlight the freshest, seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen, the chef-driven menu changes daily. Don’t leave without trying the inventive cocktails or whimsical desserts.
How to book: Make reservations online.

With flashy restaurants littered on every corner of Little Italy, it’s easy for a more low-key operation like Shino to get overlooked. While some of its most loyal customers want to keep it that way (sorry, guys!), we couldn’t leave out one of the neighborhood’s best-kept secrets. What this intimate Japanese restaurant with limited seating lacks in size, it more than makes up for in amazing quality. A wide selection of fresh sushi and sashimi is available—salmon belly, yellowtail, scallop, eel, and fatty toro—in addition to plenty of powerhouse rolls, such as the Kitchen Sink (a scallop/salmon beast stuffed with tuna, octopus, shiitake, shishito peppers, and more!) and the Heat Wave dressed with spicy habanero citrus sauce. If you’re looking for more than melt-in-your-mouth sushi, Shino’s got you covered with Japanese small plates like Chicken Karaage and Miso Black Cod.
How to book: Walk-ins welcome, but reservations are encouraged by calling 619-255-2527.

Barbusa
Photo by Sam Wells, courtesy of Barbusa

This modern Sicilian spot is owned and operated by the Busalacchi family, who, for the past 35 years, have built a legacy in Little Italy and helped turn it into the prime real estate it is today. While they’ve opened and closed several restaurants in the neighborhood over the years, Barbusa—which occupies the space that previously housed their Italian steakhouse Po Pazzo—is the one you can’t miss. Developed by family patriarch chef Joe Busalacchi and his nephew executive chef Nino Zizzo, the menu brims with house-made pastas (like Lobster Ravioli and Cavatelli with Bone Marrow), wood-fired pizzas, crudo, and more—with all seafood and produce sourced from local purveyors. A complete redesign six years ago saw the installation of a stunning Carrara marble bar and crudo station, a chilled case for all the meats and specialty cheeses imported directly from Italy, and an eight-person chef’s table.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Born And Raised
Photo by Zack Benson, courtesy of Born And Raised

Stepping into this swanky steakhouse makes you feel as if you’ve gone back in time to the ‘20s, where tuxedoed waiters and stiff drinks await in an opulent setting. Photos don’t do this place justice: an Art Deco-inspired entryway reveals a regal mahogany dining room lined with camel leather booths, travertine-topped tables, and brass accents; upstairs, the open-air rooftop patio offers skyline views with a green marble bar, velvet banquettes, and a flowering steel trellis. Dishes are decadent, delicious, and unapologetically rich and flavorful: Mac & Cheese made with fontina, umami-laden Uni Spaghetti, tender Burgundy Snails served on roasted bone marrow. Meat is aged in-house in a 40-square-foot, glass-enclosed, dry-aging room, while a butcher shop in the kitchen turns out perfectly rendered bone-in ribeyes, tomahawks, porterhouses, duck, and lamb. Be sure to order one of the elegant dishes prepared tableside—like the Steak Tartare or Caesar Salad, which you can customize based on your preferences as it’s made in front of you.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Morning Glory
Photo by Zack Benson, courtesy of Morning Glory

On weekends, you’ll likely wait for a table at this wildly popular brunch spot, which doesn’t take reservations. But it’ll be worth it. The atmosphere is loud, lively, and ready to have a good time—with hip-hop blasting over the speakers, a bachelorette party at the table next to yours, and lots of delicious bellinis and spritzers. While it’s hard to hear your dining companions over the exuberant din, you’ll be too busy chowing down on not-so-basic brunch fare to chat—from the spicy, salty Breakfast Carbonara (complete with crispy pork belly) to the Khachapuri (a Georgian dish that involves the holy trinity of bread, cheese, and egg), and the cloud-soft Souffle Pancakes (their take on the fluffy Japanese pancakes). Brought to us by the same team behind nearby Born and Raised, Morning Glory’s ‘80s-inspired decor is worth the visit alone—an extravagant pink space decked out with checkered terrazzo tile, walnut wood finishes, suede seating, an enormous lighting installation, and plenty of nods to architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
How to book: Walk-ins only.

Waterfront Bar & Grill
Photo courtesy of Waterfront Bar & Grill

Visiting the Waterfront Bar & Grill is basically a local rite of passage. This iconic watering hole lays claim to the title of oldest tavern in San Diego, where it was established in 1933 and hasn’t moved since, despite the proliferation of new high-rises and condos around it. It’s everything you’d expect of a well-kept, 89-year-old dive. A jukebox, arcade games, and pinball machines occupy customers who aren’t crowding the bar. Service is fast and friendly, thanks to bartenders who are generous with their pours. Bar-appropriate food includes the famous half-pounders—like the BBQ-drenched Rodeo Burger or Jalapeno Bacon, oozing with pepperjack cheese and sauteed onions—in addition to burritos, tacos, sammies, and free, self-serve popcorn every day. Meanwhile, strong cocktails and shooters—like the sweet Buttery Nipple and ominously named Mind Eraser—keep the night young.
How to book: Walk-ins only.

This hidden gem is owned by the family behind Landini’s, even located in the same building on the second floor. The quaint, homey ambiance makes you feel like you’re an exchange student living with an Italian family—one that just happens to be remarkably skilled at cooking. The kitchen whips up a parade of standout pastas, like the Ravioli all’ Aragosta (lobster- and crab-stuffed parcels doused in creamy vodka sauce) and Risotto alla Pescatora (starring a mix of clams, mussels, shrimp, and garlic), but the noodles aren’t the only hit. This Tuscan mom-and-pop trattoria crafts classic secondi—like Pollo al Limone (chicken prepared with a light lemon and caper sauce) and Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal medallions with prosciutto and sage)—that will satisfy your appetite for home-cooked Italian food, all perfectly complemented by an extensive selection of Italian wines and craft brews.
How to book: Make reservations online or order for pickup or delivery via Uber Eats.

Available for Delivery/Takeout
Nonna
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Nonna

Nonna

$$$$

Another winner from the Busalucchi family, Nonna is a celebration of traditional Sicilian fare—which makes sense given that its name means “grandmother” in Italian. Needless to say, at Nonna, the atmosphere is laid-back, warm, and friendly with a menu based on family recipes passed down through the generations. From an array of tasty starters (like the beef-ragu-stuffed Arancini and Calamari Fritti) to hand-crafted pastas (like the Tortelloni Funghi, served in a creamy sauce speckled with crispy prosciutto, and succulent Short Rib Ravioli), it’s all about comfort food here—often carby, deep-fried, breaded, and seriously delicious. The restaurant also houses Cafe Zucchero, an all-day cafe that serves up coffee and made-in-house Italian pastries, like cakes, cannoli, biscotti, and sfogliatella.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Herb & Wood
Photo by James Tran, courtesy of Herb & Wood

Rustic, wood-fired dishes from Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey—the man behind several of SD’s standout eateries—are the main draw at Herb & Wood. His California ethos of focusing on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients prepared with simple yet eclectic flavors means you’ll find bigeye tuna encrusted in Ethiopian berbere, venison rubbed with Moroccan coffee, and branzino accompanied by a Castelvetrano olive tapenade. Malarkey rounds out the menu with plenty of starters (the Roasted Oysters and Bone Marrow is a must), vegetable sides (like the Seven Spiced Cauliflower or Roasted Baby Carrots with cashew sesame dukkah), and house-made pastas and pizzas that you can smell the minute you step into the space. Speaking of the space, it’s both airy and large, sophisticated and industrial, with high ceilings, exposed steel beams, and lots of greenery—lending a modern yet cozy vibe that’s perfect for relaxed dinner dates.
How to book: Make reservations online. Order pickup or delivery via their website.

Mona Lisa Italian Foods
Photo courtesy of Mona Lisa Italian Foods

Mona Lisa is a San Diego legend that’s currently in its third generation of family ownership. The first restaurant, which is no longer around, was established in downtown circa 1956, while the location of this enduring restaurant-deli hybrid first opened in 1973. In its early years, Mona Lisa operated as a wholesale import business, supplying Italian goods to other San Diego restaurants. Now it’s a bastion of good, down-home, authentic Italian cooking. The deli turns out sandwiches as big as your arm—Capicollo seasoned in hot red pepper and garlic, Sopressata sausage, Caprese with fresh mozz and tomatoes—as well as shareable party trays and three- to six-foot subs. On the restaurant side, the menu offers tempting pizzas, pastas, and lunch combos by day, and Italian classics, like Veal Piccata, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Chicken Marsala, by night. A lengthy dessert menu includes everything from Tiramisu to slabs of Spumoni ice cream studded with chocolate chips, pistachios, and cherries.
How to book: Walk-ins only. Order for pickup or delivery via their website.

Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar
Photo by Zack Benson, courtesy of Ironside Fish & Oyster

This maritime-themed restaurant pays tribute to the history of Little Italy—where Italian and Portuguese immigrants once settled to earn a living from the city’s thriving tuna industry. Naturally, seafood takes center stage, so you’ll find a menu of lobster rolls, crab cakes, and clam chowder, in addition to locally caught fish served with either green garlic beurre blanc or almond romesco sauce. Get a seafood tower for a little taste of everything from the raw bar—which includes a robust oyster program that’s as well-curated as the restaurant’s wine selection. The seafaring theme is carried into the interior design too; located in a former warehouse, Ironside’s been completely refurbished with vintage nautical decor, brass portholes lining the walls, and anchor-shaped purse hooks. With the garage doors flung open to welcome a breeze and a plate of briny Washington Sequim Bay Jades on your table, you’ll feel as if you’re dining on a 19th-century ocean liner—which is a very good thing.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Civico 1845
Photo courtesy of Civico 1845

Opened by brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo, who hail from Cosenza, Italy, this Calabrian eatery keeps its dishes fresh, light, and authentic as an homage to southern Italian cuisine. According to Civico 1845, they’re even the first restaurant in California with a full vegan Italian menu since 2015, which includes spinach-pesto-slathered Linguine al Verde, homemade Lasagna with Beyond Italian ragu, and Polenta with braised artichokes and seitan. Although the restaurant’s plant-based options are so tasty that even ardent carnivores won’t miss eating animal protein, the non-vegan menu also stars several heavy-hitters, like the Scialatielli Civico with Calabrian chili-pepper-infused pasta and Caledonian prawns or the mustard-honey-glazed Pollo e Patate. Sustainability is key here; the brothers created the bar and dining area with reclaimed, natural materials and always work with local purveyors and fishermen to procure seasonal ingredients.
How to book: Make reservations online. Order for pickup via their website.

Craft & Commerce
Photo by Zack Benson, courtesy of Craft & Commerce

Prolific hospitality group CH Projects is the mastermind behind many of San Diego’s extraordinary dining and drinking venues, including several of the restaurants on this list. We’d be remiss not to mention Craft & Commerce too—which boasts a unique aesthetic (one-third industrial library, one-third hunting lodge, and one-third cocktail lounge) with taxidermy mounted on the walls and ceiling-high bookshelves. Here, you’ll grub on elevated gastropub-style food that’s easy to share—like the unbelievably juicy C&C Burger with onion confit and melty white cheddar, or the Fried Quail served with beans, collard greens, and biscuits. If snacks are what you crave, go for the made-to-order Miso Cornbread slathered with togarashi honey butter, or the decadent Bone Marrow, which—for a little extra—you can turn into a luge shot once you’ve cleaned out the bone. Within Craft & Commerce at the end of a cave-like tunnel, you’ll find False Idol—a tropical tiki bar replete with an indoor waterfall, flaming volcano, and a cocktail program that highlights rum-based drinks.
How to book: Make reservations online.

Cloak & Petal
Photo courtesy of Cloak & Petal

This see-and-be-seen restaurant on Little Italy’s main drag serves up a Westernized take on sushi, so traditionalists may not see the appeal in fusion rolls like Saucy Boi (panko-crusted shrimp, cream cheese, and spicy tuna underneath seared aioli) or GO GO Ohime Sama (served with strawberry compote and micro greens). But even purists will appreciate the quality of the fish and excellent craft cocktails—like the Japanese Mule made with shochu or the vodka-and-green-tea-based Tea Ceremony. Plus, the vibes are immaculate; you’re treated to the stunning sight of faux cherry blossom trees by the bar as you dine beneath a trellis of draping vines and teardrop lights. Cloak & Petal recently launched Shibuya Nights—a Harajuku-inspired speakeasy within the restaurant that serves up Katsu Duck, Lamb Pops, and Miso-Braised Short Rib “Rolled Tacos,” along with excellent Japanese-influenced libations.
How to book: Make reservations online. Order for pickup via their website.

Tiffany Tse contributes to Thrillist. See what’s on her plate by following her at @twinksy.