San Jose’s Italian Community Comes Together to Revitalize City’s Little Italy Neighborhood

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Bel Bacio Café

By Nancy Amdur

Thanks to a grassroots effort led by a group of San Jose residents, a formerly blighted downtown neighborhood is being revitalized by new business, construction and an identity—as the South Bay’s “Little Italy.”

bel bacio little italy san jose The RegistryWhat began six years ago as a plan to preserve a slice of San Jose’s cultural heritage in a historically Italian neighborhood centered at North Almaden Boulevard and West St. John Street is coming to fruition with broad community support and approximately $1 million raised through monetary and in-kind donations.

“Before we came along, there wasn’t anything there,” said Joshua DeVincenzi Melander, who spearheaded plans for the district and is executive director of the nonprofit Little Italy San Jose. “There was [just] a bunch of dilapidated homes falling apart.”

The neighborhood’s blueprint for growth has already drawn new businesses to the area. Over the past few years, the 300 block of West Julian Street has become home to Paesano Italian restaurant and Sabatino Memorial Family Resource Center, an Italian preschool-kindergarten. Also, Debbie Caminiti, Little Italy San Jose’s assistant director, opened Bel Bacio coffee shop in December on the same block.

“We’d been trying to convince businesses to move in and people were on the fence, so I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and open a coffee shop as a meeting point,” she said.

Little Italy fits well with the San Jose Downtown Association’s recently announced 10-year Street Life plan to beautify the city—though the two projects are separate entities, said Eric Hon, operations manager for the association-managed Property-Based Improvement District.

“I love what [Little Italy] is doing because there was a dead area between Guadalupe Park and the other side of [Highway] 87,” said Leah Toeniskoetter, the director of urban planning group SPUR San Jose, adding that it is also near two upcoming residential towers. “It adds another unique piece to downtown,” she said.

Los Gatos-based renovation firm SV Home further improved Little Italy’s profile last year when it purchased and began renovating four rundown Victorian houses in the neighborhood. Two of the redone homes were sold for residential use. The next two will be completed by May and Italian deli A.G. Ferrari Foods will occupy one of them, said Todd Hill, president of SV Home, who was born and raised in the area and is “ecstatic” about helping to restore the blocks’ luster. Part of the restoration process will air this season on cable’s Home and Garden Television (HGTV) show “Flip It to Win It.”

Next up will be a 31-foot-high illuminated “Little Italy” arch to be installed by August over West Julian Street. Local companies including Maggetti Construction, Pietra Fina and J.A. Antuzzi Concrete donated materials and services for the project.

Additionally, Little Italy San Jose raised $360,000 from the county’s Italian-American community to purchase a 1910 Queen Anne Victorian home that will become a cultural center and museum. Area contractors, including SV Home, are donating services to prepare for opening. Another $200,000 to $300,000 is needed for museum programs and exhibits, DeVincenzi Melander said.

The city of San Jose supports their efforts but has not contributed funds, he said. Little Italy San Jose is an all-volunteer organization operating solely on private donations, but it is now applying for grants for more enhancements, such as possibly creating a residential-retail development.

DeVincenzi Melander, a fourth-generation San Josean, launched the project to honor the city’s Italian history. Italians began moving into San Jose around the Gold Rush and many became part of the city’s farming community. DeVincenzi Melander’s grandfather was a founder of the 35-year-old Italian Family Festa, which draws about 30,000 people each summer to Little Italy’s Guadalupe River Park.

“The homes that are in their original spot are all that is left of what used to be a 12-block Italian neighborhood. We are trying to preserve what is left,” said Caminiti, who also is from a local Italian-American family.

The location is ideal because it is walking distance from traffic generators such as SAP Center, where the San Jose Sharks play, along with a park and a mix of businesses and residences, she added.

Fundraising for Little Italy began with the sale of sponsored bricks, which are laid in a neighborhood piazza, and banners in Guadalupe River Park that feature names of prominent Italian Americans from Santa Clara County.

Much of the support and funds for the district came from leaders in San Jose’s Italian-American community, including Helen Marchese Owen of Marchese Farms and Marchese Family Properties; John Sobrato of the Sobrato Development Companies; Rob DiNapoli, the owner of DiNapoli Specialty Foods; and Frank Fiscalini, a former San Jose vice mayor, all of whom also sit on the Little Italy advisory board.

“What’s great is not only their perseverance to get this done but that they’re rejuvenating an area that really needed some love,” Toeniskoetter said.

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