The Family Behind San Diego’s Little Italy

If you’ve eaten Italian in San Diego, you’ve undoubtedly enjoyed some bolognese pasta or wood-fired pizza pies at one of the many restaurants owned by the talented and humble Busalacchi family.

From Little Italy’s comfortable Trattoria Fantastica, to the new and hip digs at Barbusa, the Busalacchi family was actually a major hand in the creation of the Little Italy neighborhood altogether.

Seriously, they came over from Italy when the neighborhood didn’t really exist.

We had a chance to sit down with the Busalacchis, learn about their family history and restaurant development – and, subsequently, how San Diego’s own Little Italy got started.

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Dani at There San Diego: To start, can I get a little bit of a background on your family history? How did you guys land here in SD?

PJ Busalacchi: For sure! In 1966, my father and the rest of his family came to the United States from a small town called Porticello, Sicily. They moved up to Banker’s Hill. That’s where they first stopped and got a little apartment – 9 family members in a two bedroom house.

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TSD: That will make you close fast.

PJ: Exactly! So as soon as my dad came to the United States – he was 10 at the time – he started work right away. In Sicily, my dad’s father was a fisherman. As soon as my dad graduated high school at 18, he joined the tuna boats. The fishing industry was huge here in San Diego, and a major part of why they moved out here.

So, we’re talking 1980 or so, my dad went out fishing. For about 2-3 years he was actually the head cook on a bunch of tuna boats. That’s where he learned his craft, and in high school he met my mother. After my dad was finished on the tuna boats, he decided his dream was to open up restaurants. In 1984, he and my mom took all the money they had from their wedding, and opened up a little pizza place in Grossmont Center called Cassanova’s Pizza.

Meanwhile, they opened up another place in that same center because it was doing so well, and by 1986, my dad wanted to get into the fine dining scene. He gets into the fine dining scene, and opens up a restaurant in Hillcrest on 5th Avenue. Next door was a place called Stefano’s, which was arguably the busiest restaurant at the time in San Diego. My dad went next door, and he said, “Okay, if I set up shop next to this guy, maybe I’ll get the overflow of his customer base.”

It was just him in the kitchen, my mom worked the front, and in about two years Stefano’s ends up going out of business, and Busalacchi’s just kind of skyrocketed.

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Fast forward to 1994, and the family opened 7 restaurants in a matter of the next 10 years. Around 2003, condos go up, and the Little Italy neighborhood becomes more populated – in fact, it was booming. Joe had a lot to do with putting up the Little Italy sign – conveniently right in front of one of their locations.

TSD: Keeping it in the family, what’s the advantage?

Great thing about us, in SD especially, is that my dad has created such a great name for himself in the culinary and hospitality scene. When we open up restaurants, it’s nice because people recognize it’s a Busalacchi restaurant where [we’ll] treat you like family, and [where you’ll] have amazing food. But most importantly is that we are treating these people like family. Because we are the ones who are here. It’s not just some stranger that is going to be touching tables. It’s someone in the family. It’s someone that takes a lot of pride in what we’re doing here.

TSD: Obviously Little Italy is one of those neighborhoods that’s changed so much over the years, but there are still so many of the same “old world” qualities about it. What do you think sets this neighborhood apart, and where do you see it headed in the future?

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PJ:  A lot of the immigrants that moved here, moved down the street.

TSD: And they never left…

PJ: Exactly. It still has those thick roots. Luckily, my dad has kind of been the glue that keeps everything together… You can still see him and his buddies playing cards where they were 20 years ago. That’s something that obviously will go away at some point, but it’s an important part of this neighborhood that has still kept its charm.

You know, you have these 5 million dollar restaurants, and these top chefs, and that’s all beautiful and great. It’s great for the neighborhood, and the people who live here. But somehow, nevertheless, the people who have been coming here for a long time really do miss that old world feel.

It’s something I think my dad has done a really good job of: keeping that culture here, because this is where they grew up, you know?

TSD: Absolutely, and so much of that is tied to food as well. What are your top 3 favorite San Diego restaurants that you’re not affiliated with?

PJ: I’m a big sushi guy, so anything that has to do with the Ota family of restaurants, of Sushi Ota in PB… I really enjoy Hane Sushi, and Shino Sushi, which are both down there. Roger and his brother Robert do a very good job. I’m there once or twice a week. To me, best sushi in San Diego.

TSD: What dish evokes the most nostalgia from your Sicilian heritage?

PJ: One thing we have on the menu that’s different – even though other restaurants do have the typical Bolognese – that they do in Sicily a lot is a baked Agnolotti (spaghetti-o-type-of-pasta). It’s something you see for every holiday, every occasion…

My grandma used to make a huge tray of that, and that was something we really wanted to do here. Even something like this (gesturing to the cauliflower bucatini). Cooking with the cauliflower is something my grandmother does a lot.

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TSD: In your opinion, what is the definition of authentic Italian cuisine?

PJ: It’s so funny, because we always talk about, you know, how simple Italian cooking really is. It’s just the love and care that comes in a lot of ingredients. Because really, a lot of the stuff we do here is something someone can make at home. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t take 10 people to touch a dish.

TSD: That is a very common misconception with Italian cooking.

PJ: One-hundred percent. Really, simplicity is key, and using ingredients people can relate to, or enjoy is crucial. Obviously, also our fresh pasta. All of our pasta is made in house, and that, to me, is the definition of something that is an authentic Italian restaurant. This isn’t over-complicated, this isn’t a three Michelin star restaurant. It’s fantastic home cooking. It’s what we enjoy eating. That’s what the whole concept behind this restaurant was. We are going to bring the American palate exactly what we grew up eating.

We want to do what your grandmother did, what you’re used to eating.

TSD: What do you think has given your family so much staying power here?

PJ: We’ve done so well with the community, talking to people on an everyday basis, really showing them who we are, and not being these people that you only hear about. You often hear about a top chef, or restaurateur, but you rarely ever get to actually interact with them.

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We are easily accessible, we’re not someone trying to do something that is over our heads. We are very grounded and humbled in what we do. We’re here to chat, we’re here to shake hands, and talk to any person that walks through the door like they’re coming into our house.

That’s part of the reason why we’ve stayed on the precipice of his giant restaurant bubble we are seeing in San Diego. We try to do things in a different way, and stay at the forefront of the hospitality aspect of the business.

TSD: Any future restaurant goals and dreams?

PJ: Definitely, the plan is to grow and open new restaurants. We’ve been looking into North County, we’ve been looking at out-of-state places… potentially Arizona, Utah, Texas. Those are the future goals, but we are focusing on the Barbusa brand at the moment. We think we’ve hit a concept that we can parle in to many different endeavors.

TSD: Thank you for sitting down with me, and telling me your story, and about your family’s lasting legacy.

PJ: My dad will tell you he had no idea things would explode the way they did, but to be honest I think he always knew in the back of his mind. He just trusted his gut, and he took chances along the way. When he initially came down in 1994, the initial [thought] was “What the hell?”

He took a chance, and he obviously succeeded in all aspects. He’s a definite trailblazer.

TSD: I was just talking with your son about your amazing story, and legacy you’ve built here in Little Italy. I asked PJ this same question, but what do you think has been your secret to having such staying power here over the years?

Joe Busalacchi: A lot of it has to do with the fact that I have a lovely wife who understands, and she’s been there through the whole business with me. So her being involved, and now with our kids being involved, makes it a lot easier to sustain what we’ve got.

TSD: What do you see for the future for the Busalacchi name as a whole?

Joe: The kids are taking over. We are going to support them all the way through. We’ve been in it for a very long time. I think they’re going to push it further than even I had.

TSD: It sounds like you and your wife had a little bit to do with instilling that in them, so you can probably take some credit in that department!

Joe: I do, but to be successful, you have to have the whole base. It’s important to have the family roots. Everybody plays a part in it. Whether it’s your wife, the dog, the cat… Everybody plays a part in who we are today.

TSD: What’s a dish that evokes the most nostalgia for your Sicilian heritage – again, I asked PJ the same, but would love to hear your answer.

Joe: Well, there are a lot. But here is one [cauliflower bucatini] that is delicious and I grew up eating on a weekly basis.

PJ: I actually have a question for you! What made you open up the restaurants on this street, and why were you taking the chances on each restaurant that you did?

Joe: Well, number one, I am an immigrant. So, I feel that San Diego needed a Little Italy, and you know, we’re going back years when Little Italy was nonexistent. I love my heritage, I love Italians, I love America, so I thought, it would be great to bring it here. Every other city seems to have a Little Italy, and I think it’s great for San Diego.

Dani: Did you have a feeling in the back of your mind it would have this much of an impact?

Joe: You know, I’m going to be very honest; no I didn’t. But I felt strongly there needed to be a Little Italy section, and it just turned out to be great. So for that, I’m grateful.

Dani: Any advice to anyone with similar dreams?

Joe: Follow them. It’s very simple. Nothing comes easy. Hard work will pay off eventually.  You have to stick with what you believe, and continue to do the best you can.

…We think we’ll leave it at that, San Diego 😉 . Thank you for the inspiration, Busalacchi fam!