Big deals in Little Italy

The next big thing in the emergence of San Jose’s Little Italy district is this month’s ground-breaking of the Little Italy Museum and Cultural Center.

The museum will occupy two properties along West St. John Street. The Cultural Center will occupy the top floor of the larger building, which has a basement that will be transformed into the Italian Cellar speakeasy bar, said Joshua DeVincenzi Melander, president of Little Italy San Jose.

“We keep adding landmarks to reclaim the district as Little Italy,” said Melander.  “We feel that if we build it, they will come.”

The cellar will pay homage to the historic downtown haunt, Manny’s Cellar, previously called the Italian Cellar, and to the pioneering local Italian wine families who built their businesses during prohibition – MondaviGuglielmoFortino and Seghesio.

The City Council recently appropriated $250,000 for the museum/cultural center, the first public dollars of support in a decade of Little Italy improvements, Melander said.  San Jose’s “Who’s Who” of Italian families – DiNapoliSobrato and Marchese – each contributed $100,000.  In all, Little Italy organizers raised more than $600,000 in funding and in-kind contributions.  The museum project is getting help with architecture, electrical, plumbing and construction.

“As far as we know, it will be the first museum that celebrates Italians and Italian-Americans,” Melander said.

He envisions an active cultural center full of Italian cooking classes, Renaissance painting exhibits and photos of Italy and Italians in America.

“Little Italy is still in an immature stage as a destination,” said Gary Sunseri, Bel Bacio café co-owner.  “There still a lot of people downtown who don’t know that we are here.  Once the cultural center comes in, I think Little Italy will increase as a destination spot.”

Every business owner – and past business owners – spend time supporting the neighborhood.

“I like to give people what I call 10-minute tours where I can give them the past, present and future of Little Italy,” added Debbie Caminiti, former Bel Bacio owner.

The back of the cultural center abuts the Guadalupe River Park.  There, Melander hopes to create a Pinocchio-themed play area, and is working with the park to introduce more than one court of bocce.

“We’re still negotiating with the park, each of us trying to find our place together,” he said.

Little Italy is trying to keep a seat at the table for a number of projects with eyes on the park area.  Swenson last year provided its vision.  The San Jose Light Tower Corporation recently received permission to place its project on the nearby Arena Green.  And SPUR and the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy have expressed interest in developing the area next to Little Italy.

“We hope that we can continue being a part of all those conversations so we can put together a coordinated effort,” Melander said.  

The Little Italy board and businesses are full of ideas for their district and possible expansion, including a mural for the Highway 87 undercrossing, an area for Italian food trucks and peddlers, gondolas on the river, a Ponte Vecchio-like bridge over Los Gatos Creek, and possible expansion toward the arena and along the Autumn Parkway.

“Now’s the time to dream big with all the investment proposed downtown,” Melander said. 

Events such as Boss of the Sauce tournament and the annual Cannoli Tournament attract a faithful following of participants, but not nearly as many people as the annual Little Italy Festival, which attracted 10,000 its first year and now has grown to 25,000 people in a day. The fourth annual Little Italy Festival is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Little Italy also peppers its seasonal calendar with wine-tastings, concerts, holiday party, galas, vintage car shows and art shows.

“During festivals, forget it – you can’t even walk into our place,” said Sunseri, who has owned Bel Bacio with his wife, Judy, for two years.  “We’re really happy here.  We’re both Italian and that makes a big difference to us.  We’re part of something bigger here in Little Italy.”

RENEWAL CHRONOLOGY

A rare intact Italian working-class neighborhood dating back to the 1870s and 1880s includes Henry’s Hi-Life (1900-built Torino Hotel) and 1920s Alameda Bakery. 

1990s – Barry Swenson Builder restores 9 Victorians
              that house four Little Italy businesses today

2009 –  La Piccola Scuola Nel Parco (dual-language
             “Little School”)

2010 –  Legacy Brick program (500 engraved bricks)
             establishing Piazza Piccola Italia

2010 –  32 banners of prominent Italian-Americans

2011 –  Local builder renovates four more Victorians,
             featured on HGTV’s “Flip It to Win It”

2011 –  Paisano Ristorante Italiano

2015 –  Little Italy Arch

2015 –  Bel Bacio Italian Café

2016 –  First Little Italy Festival (in October)

2018 –  Enoteca La Storia Wine Bar & Pizzeria in 
             renovated Alameda Bakery

2019 –  Museum & Cultural Center, plus Italian Cellar 
             Bar break ground