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Little Italy Then & Now: Revisiting 1980s series on San Diego neighborhoods

News 8 looks into the history of Little Italy, and what it's like today. We revisit Filippi's Pizza, Our Lady of the Rosary and other landmarks featured in 1986.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Little Italy is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in San Diego. It's filled with posh restaurants and bars. Residents pay top dollar to live there. But it wasn't always this way.

Back in the 1970s, Little Italy went through a period of decline.

News 8 profiled Little Italy in 1986, during a time when many businesses had a hard time drawing in customers. People still shopped for bread, pasta and cheese there, but the customers didn't come in as often.

Bobby DePhilippis remembers what things were like back then.

The 72-year-old started working at his family's restaurant, Filippi's Pizza Grotto, when he was just 15 years old. His grandfather, Vincent DePhilippis and his grandmother, Madeleine Manfredi founded it. It's since expanded throughout San Diego.

The Little Italy location was the first. The restaurant retained its original character. Some of the same employees News 8 interviewed in 1986 are still there as of 2021.

Credit: KFMB

Though the "Filippi's" sign on top of the building looks the same as it did decades ago, the neighborhood does not.

"I just couldn’t believe all the structures in the street," said DePhilippis. "It’s like day and night, an unbelievable change."

India Street was once home to just a handful of restaurants and businesses.

"If you’re a real estate investor and you bought some of this stuff in 1965, you're a very rich man today - or woman," he laughed.

"Just a mind-blowing situation, but I think it’s good. I think it’s good for San Diego," he added.

Besides Filippi's, there are other historic landmarks in Little Italy. Our Lady of the Rosary recently underwent a $2.5 million renovation. In 2021, it looked identical to what it did 35 years prior.

Little Italy was once home to thousands of Italian families. It used to be a thriving fishing community. However, the construction of Interstate 5 in the early 1970s, destroyed a large portion of the neighborhood. Many families fled to the suburbs. However, the Pecoraros chose to stay.

"It’s been 71 years in our family, I am fourth-generation here born and raised here in the neighborhood. It’s pretty nice to see how it’s come full circle," said 49-year-old Onofrio Pecoraro.

He said his great grandparents settled in Little Italy back in 1906.

"They could’ve went to El Cajon, they could’ve went South Bay, they could’ve went anywhere, but they came here," said Pecoraro.

His family owns the yellow house on India Street near the giant "Little Italy" sign. It's one of the few homes left in the neighborhood. His dad is a familiar face in the area. He sits on the porch every day.

"The memories are just too special," he said. "You gotta remember when we grew up in the house, it was one-story, six people, two bedrooms, one bath. We come from humble beginnings. We recognize how lucky we are to be a part of the neighborhood."

In 1988, News 8 interviewed Onofrio's brother, Jack, who was just 11 years old at the time. To him, "fixing" Little Italy was simple.

"Take out the old junky apartments and put new ones in. Decorate the streets so it looks nice," he said.

His wish was granted. Pecoraro said over the years, they've been offered millions for their property. He said there is no amount of money that would ever be enough for them to sell.

"My mother put it in her will before she passed, that the property would never be sold," said Pecoraro. "We have no intent to sell."

The goal back in 1986 was simply to make Little Italy more pedestrian-friendly by putting the utilities underground and expanding sidewalks. The turning point came a decade later. Business and property owners helped form with the formation of the Little Italy Association of San Diego. The organization found a way to drive economic growth while still preserving the Italian charm and character of the neighborhood.

But with growth, comes traffic, crowds and parking problems. However, some longtime residents told News 8 they don't mind. In fact, they like the new energy.

"I’ve been living over here for 53 years," said Nino LaLicata.

Every morning, he meets a group of Italian friends for coffee in Little Italy.

"We get together every day. We talk about the old days," he said.

He never imagined the neighborhood would transform into what it is today.

"Little Italy is still a place to be enjoyed," he said.

"It’s all good, life changes. You have to change with it," said Giovanni Orlando, another longtime resident.

CELEBRATE SAN DIEGO SERIES

Celebrate San Diego was a 1986/1987 series about neighborhoods of San Diego County. CBS 8 anchor-reporter Connie Healy and a team of photographers roamed the county and delivered in-depth profiles of several towns and communities in the area. They were history lessons focusing on changes and progress.

Many long-term residents she spoke with reflected on what it was like to grow up in their town and what they thought of all the changes they had seen. One really gets a sense of what the character and personality of the community were like in each profile - and how diverse the county really is. 

Thirty-five years later, we're sending out a team of reporters to see how things have changed or stayed the same in each of the nearly 20 neighborhoods we covered in the mid-1980s.

Connie shares her memories below of working on this fantastic series:  

"I love talking to people. People make the news, not newscasters. They simply report how we live our lives. But sometimes it enriches that picture to add a little perspective by not just looking at where we are today, but how far we've come. In the 1980s, Celebrate San Diego did just that. It painted a picture of daily life that was much different from the one we live today, and a city that many of us wouldn't even recognize.

Talking to people, listening to their stories is what reporters do every day. But these stories of life in San Diego 50 to 100 years ago were amazing. This city has come a long way in the last 30 years but some of the people in these stories saw change at the speed of light. I would encourage you to take some time to take a look into our past, revel in the present and celebrate the wonderful city that we all call home."

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