Living in America’s big cities unlocks access to worldwide cuisine, including some of the best Italian food in San Diego. The area adjacent to downtown and sporting flashes of red, white and green is its own Italian nook. San Diego’s Little Italy draws tourists and locals each day to dine and explore its revitalized streets. The neon blue archway welcomes you to a slice of Europe with its vibrant awnings, bustling cafes, swanky restaurants and crowded markets.
Italians migrated to the neighborhood in droves during the 1890s, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake pushed many to move south. Despite its long history as an Italian neighborhood, only two of the spots on this list are located in Little Italy.
Every neighborhood has cemented a local favorite spot for Italian food in San Diego – evenings filled with bread, cheese, wine and fresh herbs. You can scout out scrumptious gnocchi or Neapolitan pizza on just about every other block in this seaside city. From quaint family restaurants and beloved institutions to upscale eateries and experimental menus, these spots are where you’ll find the best Italian food in San Diego.
Buona Forchetta – South Park
College students often claim the flagship location of Buona Forchetta as the best San Diego Italian restaurant. Hordes of noisy friends and dressy couples crowd the block to wait for a coveted table serviced by amiable staff with thick accents. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared for a potentially horrific wait time.
Renowned for their Neapolitan pizza, Buona Forchetta has expanded to various San Diego neighborhoods. But they can’t beat the foliage surrounding the outdoor seating on a corner in South Park. Order the artichokes for an appetizer doused in olive oil.
The Red Door – Mission Hill
With comfortable booth seating and outdoor dining options, The Red Door in Mission Hills makes for a family favorite. This restaurant takes a bite out of trendy America and the Italian countryside. Chef and owner Luciano Cibelli personally selects every ingredient used, and they are proud to say that The Red Door “sources almost exclusively from local farmers, producers, brewers and distillers.”
The menu offers some classic Italian staples, including a range of pasta dishes, while also dishing out vegan options and hefty burgers. Try the tiramisu for the best of San Diego’s Italian desserts, and don’t skimp on dessert cocktails, either. If you’re looking for one of the top Italian restaurants in San Diego, you won’t go wrong here.
Civico 1845 – Little Italy
This farmhouse chic spot makes a perfect night out for a birthday or anniversary dinner. The peeling white paint on the barn doors usher you into a small space crammed with dark wooden tables and chairs. It’s the kind of tasteful that beckons you to take a seat and peruse the menu.
Any seafood dish here will blow away your taste buds – from the salmon to swordfish to the mussels. It’s flagship location is open for indoor and outdoor dining. They have a sister location in Bankers Hill, currently open for takeout.
You can’t go wrong here if you’re looking for vegan options, either. Owner and executive chef Pietro Gallo is passionate about veganism, which is the inspiration behind the vegan and gluten-free menu at Civico 1845. Yes, it is possible to have your tiramisu, and eat it vegan, too.
Mattarello Cooking Lab – Gaslamp
Experimental San Diegan restaurants often nestle in the Gaslamp Quarter, a downtown neighborhood that revs its engine when the sun sets. The fresh décor of Mattarello Cooking Lab blends trendy marble with wood and foliage. One thing they want to be clear: “At Mattarello we’re pasta makers.”
They offer a simple menu with spectacular dishes made from scratch and a range of cooking classes, including Italian bread making and make-your-own pasta. Check out their house made sauces and jams if you can’t survive without a reserve of Italian food at home. You can even order goodies from their online store.
Mona Lisa – Little Italy
Mona Lisa doubles as a deli and a restaurant. Once you set foot in this cramped Italian bodega, you’ll come here every week for groceries. Locals swarm the fresh meat and cheese counters for sandwiches and a la carte items. Old and young visitors stroll around the tiny aisles in search of this week’s wine selection and pasta sauce.
Established originally in 1956 by Grandfather Stefano Brunetto, this San Diego Italian restaurant has become a local institution, now operated by the third generation of the family. They offer undeniably one of the best marinara sauces in Southern California. The restaurant has a simple and classic menu, with everything Italian you could possibly think of. It’s like what your Nonna would have made at home.
Arrivederci – Hillcrest
Conjure up an image of a family-owned Italian restaurant. Old photos on the white walls, checkered tablecloths, exposed brick and wine cabinets. Add a white and yellow awning, mustard French doors and families belting “happy birthday” and you’ve perfectly described Hillcrest’s Arrivederci.
Corners of the ceiling have pockets displaying decorations and wine. You’ll probably need a to-go box for the giant portions of pasta, or you can begrudgingly share with a member of your party. Arrivederci’s rich sauces and hearty gnocchi will become a go-to restaurant for date nights. Regularly voted as San Diego’s top pizzeria, this casual eatery won’t disappoint if you’re looking for a true Italian experience.
The Godfather – Kearny Mesa
This ritzy spot located in a strip mall (where else would you find quality food in Kearny Mesa?) boasts a diverse menu full of Italian staples. The menu includes Italian names with English translations, several sections and traditional Caesar or caprese salads. Executive Chef Isidoro Balistreri comes all the way from Aspra, a small town outside of Palermo, bringing family tradition and authenticity like no other San Diego Italian restaurant.
Suited servers offer friendly service, though they may judge your choice of wine. If the name doesn’t capture your attention, let the residents of Kearny Mesa gush about the ambience of The Godfather for a few minutes. You’ll have a reservation booked that week.
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