LIVING IN THE CITY: Brushstrokes of Little Italy

Artist Ro Tarantino thrives in this downtown San Diego neighborhood that holds both family history and modern comforts
A color filtered photo of Ro Tarantino. (Facebook)

“Living In the City” is the San Diego Sun’s feature Q&A with downtown San Diego residents. It’s a way to get to know the city by meeting the people who live here. This is number 28 in an ongoing series.

Name: Ro Tarantino

Location: The Hawthorn Place building in the heart of Little Italy. I purchased my property in 2005 and live in the condo when it’s not leased out, mostly to traveling nurses for their 90-day nursing contracts. Some have extended up to two years after they fall in love with Little Italy. 

Personal deets: Born in San Diego at Mercy Hospital in 1956. That’s 66 years ago, but who’s counting?!

Why downtown: I chose to live in Little Italy due to family ties–but I love the vibrancy and energy in the neighborhood. There’s a small-town charm, but I also enjoy everything modern: The Mercado, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, art, music and great people watching. 

Family history: My father was born on the corner of Columbia and W. Elm Street. My mother moved to this country at 17. She and her sisters lived in a small house on what’s now the Piazza della Famiglia. The neighborhood house where she lived (and where she met my father) was moved to Amici Park and now serves as the cultural center. Note: This was also the location of a significant life event: my first art show called “Divine Detour Change of Art” in 2019. 

Ro Tarantino’s mother, Francesca (Giacalone) De Santi in her wedding dress in 1952, in front of what is now Amici House. (Courtesy photo)

Work deets: Self-employed hairstylist since 1986. Professional artist since 2018. I own Majestic Art Gallery, which is also a working art studio.

Best aspect of your building: Hawthorn Place was built in 2003 and is void of amenities–so the greatest benefit of this quaint, four-story Mediterranean style building is location. It leads to freeway access, so streets are never closed during Little Italy events. 

Worst aspects of the building: Exorbitant HOA fees without amenities. Property managements (current and past) are a little slow to correct issues. Limited parking is a chronic issue. Very few handicap parking spaces. 

Best parts of living downtown: Location. Walking distances to everything you might need. The energy and diversity people bring to the area is contagious and invigorating.

Ro Tarantino (center) hanging with the Little Italy “old guard” on India Street. (Courtesy photo)

Atmosphere and charm: Little Italy is a place where I always see a familiar face, whether it’s friends or relatives I grew up with in the Sicilian community. The best: Listening to the older Sicilian guys who sit at the table for hours talking about the past or arguing over issues they didn’t resolve the day before. 

Worst parts of living downtown: First and foremost, the limited parking. The homeless population is also dreadfully unaddressed. 

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria: I’ve only seen the homeless population grow steadily worse since Mr. Gloria has been in office. I think if it was a priority for him he would have made more positive changes by now.  

Parking advice: Carpool. Allow 15-30 minutes of circling to find a spot. Use Uber. If you’re lucky enough to find space in a public lot, be sure it will cost a pretty penny. 

Transportation breakdown: 80% driving, 20% walking. No biking. 

Inside Mona Lisa Italian Foods. (Facebook)

Best lunch spot: I’ve been known to order a pizza, caprese or deluxe sub from Mona Lisa Italian Foods. You can’t beat the deli vibe with the smell of meats and cheeses hanging from the ceiling. The tight quarters and angled checkout counter adds to the experience. You’re crammed shoulder to shoulder. Trying to avoid knocking over glass-bottled Sicilian groceries with your elbows. It’s transformative.

Dinner faves: I like: Not Not Tacos in the Little Italy Food Hall, Farmer’s Table, Sogno di Vino and Buon Appetito. I regularly patronize old standards such as Nonna and Mona Lisa. For special occasions: Miguel’s Cocina, The Brigantine or Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Go-to coffee shop(s): I like to enjoy a coffee and a little sfogliatella (“lobster tail”) pastry at Nonna on India street (formerly Zucchero). Great coffee and desserts, atmosphere and charm…also, my art is hanging on the walls here. I frequent places like Caffe Italia and Influx, too. 

Ro Tarantino’s “Marlowe on a green chair.” (Courtesy photo)

Currently streaming: Yellowstone, The White Lotus, anything related to art, classical art and artists. 

Food shopping: The Saturday morning Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market. Mona Lisa. Vons in Mission Hills. I don’t venture downtown to do food shopping.

Fond memory: Cramming about 40 people into my condo to watch World Cup soccer.

Favorite event: The annual Mission Federal ArtWalk.

Last thought: There’s something for everyone downtown. Don’t be afraid to do a little research, venture out and explore. SDSun

☀️ Want to tell your downtown San Diego “Living In The City” story? Email

☀️ To read the entire Living In The City series, go to: Profiles.


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