Restaurant family with deep roots in Little Italy bets on the Old Town

For over 40 years, the Busalacchi name has been synonymous with the Little Italy restaurant scene. But one branch of the Busalacca family tree is now leaving its mark on another San Diego historical community.

In August 2020, father and son restaurateurs Sal and Pietro Busalacchi, along with Sal’s longtime friend, attorney Gustavo Rios, opened their first restaurant together: Trattoria Don Pietro at 2415 San Diego Ave. in the Old City. Their second and more ambitious venture, a luxury two-story Mexican restaurant and cocktail bar called El Sueño, will open this summer at the long-closed La Piñata Mexican restaurant at 2836 Juan St.

Pietro Busalacchi prepares a cocktail at the Don Pietro trattoria in San Diego's Old Town.

Pietro Busalacchi prepares a cocktail at the Don Pietro trattoria in San Diego’s Old Town.

(Josue Castro)

Pietro Busalacchi, 28, grew up working in his father’s former restaurants before moving into the Los Angeles hospitality industry on his own in his 20s. But his dream was to open a restaurant with his father in his hometown of San Diego. They spent five years looking for a location before settling on a location in the Old Town, where the 210-seat Trattoria Don Pietro now stands.

The restaurant is named after Sal’s late father, Sr. Pietro Busalacchi, a Sicilian fisherman who moved with his wife Cristina and their seven children to Little Italy in the mid-1960s. Sal, now 68, started fishing with his father, then went on to work in restaurants in Little Italy and then opened his own, Hollywood Pizza, in 1978. which he sold in 2013. His extended Busalacchi family still owns many Little Italy restaurants.

Sal Busalacchi is co-owner of the trattoria Don Pietro and the soon-to-be-opened El Sueno restaurant.

Sal Busalacchi is co-owner of the trattoria Don Pietro and the soon-to-be-opened El Sueno restaurant.

(Josue Castro)

Trattoria Don Pietro serves authentic Sicilian dishes brought back from the island by 92-year-old Cristina Busalacchi nearly 60 years ago. The younger Pietro said that as a teenager, he watched his grandmother cook these meals every day in her Mission Hills kitchen. With the help of his brother, Joe Pietro recreated her dishes, adapting them to the tastes of California. For example, some of his family favorites, such as sardine meatballs and anchovy dip, are not popular with American patrons.

Pietro works as a restaurant general manager, bar manager and cocktail maker. The restaurant’s specialties are Bolognese sauce, short beef ribs, ravioli with lobster and sphincione, Sicilian pizza in a pan. He said the trattoria is known for its festive atmosphere, vibrant music and creative cocktails such as the espresso martini, the Emerald City pistachio drink and the Half-Blood Prince negroni.

Gustavo Rios is a partner in the Trattoria Don Pietro and El Sueno restaurants in San Diego's Old Town.

Gustavo Rios is a partner in the Trattoria Don Pietro and El Sueno restaurants in San Diego’s Old Town.

(Josue Castro)

The trio’s next big venture is El Sueño, which means “dream” in Spanish. They hope to open in July. Pietro said he based his “food-entertainment” concept on his travels in Mexico, describing it as a luxurious hideaway, abandoned and overgrown with jungle.

“It will be a Kettner Exchange meeting with Javier and Pablo Escobar’s secret retreat.”

Before returning to San Diego a few years ago, Pietro worked in Los Angeles at the luxury restaurant and bar Tom Tom, owned by Lisa Vanderpump. There, he says, he learned a lot in creating the atmosphere and atmosphere he wants to see in El Sueño.

“It all starts from the moment guests enter the restaurant. Every time they come back, we want them to be amazed – to say, “I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “And we want them to feel like this is their place – always welcome. Service is a priority. The quality of the food…is another priority. Dinner should be a complete experience.”

The 6,000-square-foot El Sueño seats up to 600 people and also features a rooftop bar and live DJs on some nights. Its menu will be Mexican, but with an emphasis on high quality ingredients, elegant presentation and Californian touches of traditional dishes.

If El Sueño becomes as successful as Trattoria Don Pietro, Pietro expressed his hope that there will be more restaurants in the Old Town in the future of his investment group.

“Here (in the Old City) there are not many well-known restaurant groups now, and there has not been much turnover in the last 20 years. This area is under occupation,” he said.

Octopus dish at Trattoria Don Pietro in the Old Town.

Octopus dish at Trattoria Don Pietro in the Old Town.

(John Dole)

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