Mary Carol Fitzgerald
Credit: Mary Carol Fitzgerald

Ciao Down With This Guide to Dinner and Drinks in Little Italy

Explore Italian Favorites and Beyond in This Electric San Diego Neighborhood

Don’t be fooled by its name—Little Italy in San Diego isn’t home only to pizza and pasta places. While trattorias are abundant in this downtown neighborhood, Italian food isn’t exclusive here. India Street is the crown jewel of epicurean delights in this San Diego district. This avenue is marked by a collection of vibrant cuisines, eclectic eateries and swanky vibes. From tropical speakeasies and Mexican cantinas to steakhouses and seafood joints, there’s a destination to satisfy every craving. A cultural melting pot, Little Italy represents the globe: you can get a taste of the Yucatán Peninsula, New Zealand and the Mediterranean coastline all in one neighborhood. Here’s your complete guide to dinner and drinks in San Diego’s Little Italy.


Camino Riviera

YouTube video

Credit: Joann Van Noy

An Insta-worthy snapshot of a trip to Tulum, Camino Riviera captures the flavors and visual aesthetic of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Beyond the hand-painted exterior is a neon-lit jungle oasis teeming with lush banana plants, palms and tropical textiles. Your phone will definitely want to eat first at this bohemian cantina, as nearly every dish has its own unique flair—think green harissa, rattle tail chile aioli and edible gold leaves. The restaurant relies on local purveyors to supply its kitchen with fresh, seasonal ingredients, supplemented with specialty items from around the globe. There’s always a new cocktail to pair with their elevated take on Mexico’s favorite fast food, simply dubbed “The Taco,” and if seafood is your jam, the whole fried snapper with salsa verde and spiced crema is a must-try. 

Even the monikers of their tequila and mezcal drinks embody the sizzle and spice of the Little Italy restaurant’s origins. We recommend the mezcal-forward Tulum Raider or the spicy rum- and tequila-based Street Corn Fighter. The agave program is among the best in town, going beyond mezcal and tequila and into lesser-known distillates from Mexico. “Mezcal boasts the largest geographical denomination of origin globally, and through our close partnerships, we proudly present rare expressions and exclusive private batches to our guests,” says Bar manager Stephen O’Halloran.


Coco Maya

Little Italy Dining Guide
Credit: Huy Hoang

Sitting pretty on a rooftop above India Street with its fringed umbrellas and arching skylight, Coco Maya doubles as a Caribbean-inspired eatery and the ultimate place for chic photo ops. Feast on the flavors of Latin America with exotic shareable plates like plantains and ceviche. There’s a menu devoted to proteins grilled to perfection atop quebracho coals in a Josper oven. Balance out the heat of the plate with a zingy spring cocktail. We recommend the Little Italy Southside—a refreshing blend of cucumber and elderflower.


Juniper & Ivy

Juniper and Ivy
Credit: Courtesy of Juniper and Ivy

Wine down the week with a glass of vino from Juniper & Ivy, a warm, fine-dining establishment set in a restored warehouse. This premier farm-to-table gem has racked up a list of accolades, garnering a place among San Diego’s most essential eateries. You’ll likely never see the same two plates twice on this ever-changing seasonal menu—it’s rotated daily based on the local catch and fresh finds from their purveyors. The Lions Mane Bigoli and Carne Cruda Asada are two dishes that have left a lasting impression on patrons, and we recommend enjoying them at the Chef’s counter, where you can watch the magic happen.


Herb & Wood

Just as cozy as its name implies, Herb & Wood’s rustic, wood-fired Mediterranean plates go hand in hand with the candle-light ambiance, barrel-vaulted ceilings and funky accent pieces. We’re still not sure how exactly this communal kitchen creates a symphony of flavors from such simple ingredients. But, if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s renowned Chef Brian Malarkey. All we can say is pass the fried chickpea hummus, venison tartare and grilled trumpet mushrooms, please! Seasonality and sustainability are the backbone of this Little Italy restaurant—attributes worthy of a toast that features one of their nearly 150 bottles of both Californian and Old World labels.


Kettner Exchange

Credit: James Tran

We’re pretty sure this is the only place where you can rent a private luxury cabana in Little Italy. This multi-level restaurant feels more like a swanky farmhouse than a restaurant. If you look around, you’ll see subtle nods to the nautical history of San Diego. But it’s not just the soothing award-winning design that set Kettner Exchange apart from neighborhood contenders. The food does that just fine on its own. Snack your way through Chef Brian Redzikowski’s whipped buttermilk ricotta with charred bread in front of their two-way fireplace. Or, settle into a swinging daybed to indulge in Sonoma lamb Szechuan noodles. Start the night with an Osaka Sour and see where it takes you!


Mona Lisa Italian Foods

Little Italy Dining Guide
Credit: Renata Brunetto

If you’ve ever been beguiled by Mona Lisa’s smile, consider what might await you at Mona Lisa Italian Foods. This proud Little Italy establishment doesn’t need to boast a lavish interior for guests to feel like they just stepped off a plane. The aromas alone in Mona Lisa Italian Foods pay homage to the rustic trattorias and paninotecas that dot the streets of Rome. This small Italian joint is both a restaurant and market, marking it as a neighborhood hotspot for pizza, meatball paninis and imported Italian goods. They even offer standard or double crust options, in addition to the classic thin crust Italy is known for.



Little Italy Dining Guide
Credit: Monello

Italian trattorias are a dime a dozen along India Street—this is Little Italy, after all. So why choose Bencotto? Fresh, handmade pasta tossed in a 60-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is the only introduction this five-star establishment needs. Pasta is the main event at Bencotto: build your own plate by selecting your favorite type of noodles, filling and sauce, or select from decadent house specialties. You can’t go wrong with the tagliatelle al ragu or ravioli al tartufo.


Born and Raised

Rooftop Bars San Diego
Credit: Zack Benson ©

Potato lovers will be pleased to learn that Born and Raised was once coined “hashbrown heaven,” not to distract from the premium cuts that put this steakhouse on the map. Swanky from top to bottom, the eclectic menu fits right in with leopard print seating and green marble tabletops. Start with the uni spaghetti, get funky with the Burgundy snails and lean into the Beef Wellington for two. Gleaming silver tableside carts elegantly present your cuts of choice alongside hand-shaken cocktails. Should steak be top of mind, the only difficult decision will be choosing between the wet-aged rib eye or the dry-aged, bone-in New York strip.


Roman Wolves

Little Italy Dining Guide
Credit: Roman Wolves

Inspired by the Eternal City (aka Rome), you’ll leave this rustic-chic restaurant with an eternal craving for their pecorino pasta. And this should come as no surprise, considering they toss handmade pasta in a grand Pecorino Romano cheese wheel before finishing it tableside. Roman Wolves blends ancient Roman architecture with cultural staples like suppli (the street food of Italy), gnocchi alla norma and branzino. Spritzes are all the rage here, intended to leave you with a smile while tossing a sincere “molto bene!” over your shoulder.



Slide into a sleek, built-in booth for an aperitivo and a flirty cocktail or two at Monello. The sister restaurant to Bencotto, you know you’re in for a treat when this eatery boasts the same cheesy pasta wheel as its sibling. From homemade penne in a classic formaggi cream sauce to pappardelle tossed with Grandma’s ragu, the food here feels like home. Of course, pizza is also a staple at Monello. Sink your teeth into four-day fermented dough that promises a light, thin and crispy crust.


Allegro Restaurant and Bar

Dine among aromatic lemon groves at Allegro Restaurant and Bar, an adorable Little Italy restaurant that draws its inspiration from the Amalfi Coast. Pushing past heavy maple doors reveals a dazzling dining room dubbed “The Lemon Room,” which is framed by white-brick wallpaper and a canopy of lemons draped from the ceiling. This alfresco space demands that you twirl your fork in a perfect plate of fettuccine mare. Seafood is the star of the show at this Capri-inspired hotspot, with lobster stuffed into ravioli and Manila clams tossed in the linguine vongole.


Ironside Fish & Oyster

Enter into a nautical-themed wonderland at Ironside Fish & Oyster. While seafood is the backbone of this maritime treasure, a 14-foot custom-tiled bar puts its 90 fortified wines and draft cocktails on display. Your eyes will quickly fall on the ironside platters of crab, oysters and mussels when perusing the menu, with oysters labeled “Big,” “Bigger” and “Biggest.” Extra-hungry sailors should opt for one of their one-pound lobster rolls, unapologetically covered in a thick coat of brown butter mayo.


Nolita Hall

With a reputation as a neighborhood food hall, a local hangout and the ultimate playground for foodies, Nolita Hall has it all. Charcuterie boards, wood-fired pizzas and salads fill the menu of this open-air food hall in Little Italy. A communal concept makes it easy to nibble while engaging in a game of indoor shuffleboard. Lush plants and a fresh breeze create an inviting setting to indulge in lobster bucatini or cheese and focaccia lunchablés.


Cloak and Petal

This cheery, intimate Japanese dining concept gets its adorable moniker from the cherry blossom trees of Asia. Just as this native flora symbolizes friendship, share plates and a communal bar are thoughtfully curated to embrace the same mission at Cloak and Petal. Purple neon lights, faux cherry blossom trees and street art wallpaper cultivate an edgy yet swanky atmosphere. When it comes to the food, blistered shishito peppers, crispy chicken or cauliflower karaage and katsu curry only scratch the surface at this Little Italy restaurant.


False Idol

Credit Zack Benson

It was about time Little Italy saw the appearance of its own trendy tiki bar when False Idol arrived on the scene. In all honesty—it’s a struggle not to idolize this temple of cocktails. Acquiring your pick of their 36 tropical beverages first means finding the entrance. Hidden within its parent restaurant, Craft & Commerce, guests are transported into an immersive realm of Polynesian pop art and Caribbean textiles. A standout, the Mai Sha Roa Na is a warm buzz of Jamaican rum, banana and vanilla macadamia nut. But, if you order one of their shareable cocktails, like the Luau Scorpion, you can expect fire and thunderstorm effects.


Queenstown Public House

Almost unrecognizable in a vintage-style 20th-century house, it’s easy to see where Queenstown gets its “homey” feel. This New Zealand-inspired kitchen embraces an organic, natural approach, with a little help from their edible garden and fruit trees. It’s only fitting to share some sliders among friends on their outdoor patio. Or, dive into their Hogs & Heffers burger served with skinny fries. Looking for a refreshing complement? Hand-shaken drinks and seasonal cocktails, like the Wildflower with rye whiskey, chamomile syrup, lemon, egg whites and orange bitters, make for a perfect pairing.

+ posts




Related Content

Azure Palm Hot Springs
Skip to content