Taking on a bold and daring adventure, Pietro Busalacchi and wife Cristina immigrated to San Diego with their 7 children, Anna, Tony, Sal, Frank and Joe in 1966, leaving their hometown of Porticello, Sicily and came to settle in San Diego’s Little Italy. They worked hard to instill the Sicilian tradition and a hard work ethic in their children, which is very evident throughout Little Italy even today. Pietro could be seen checking on each family restaurant every day and Cristina often gave recipe advice when needed.
Being active members of Our Lady of the Rosary church, they celebrated their 50th anniversary by renewing their vows in May of 2000. Their discipline seems to have paid off as son Joseph Busalacchi following in father’s footsteps opened his first restaurant, The Busalacchi Fish Company. He has been acquiring newer and bigger ventures since then. Personable, passionate and profitable, the restaurant owner and chef has added and sold several restaurants over the years, and remains an icon in Little Italy.
“I opened my first big restaurant, Busalacchi’s, up on Fifth Avenue in the Hill Crest area of San Diego,” recalled Busalacchi, who is also a Chef and has prepared meals in each of his restaurants. Nowadays he has hired chefs to run them while he manages them. “When I turned 18, I went back to Italy to study at the Culinary Institute of Palermo. When I came back to the States, I got my first job in the San Diego Tuna Fleet where I worked as a chef for the next five years.
The original Busalacchi’s on Fifth Avenue was moved down the street and has been operating for the past 25 years. Via Lago, located in Eastlake in the South Bay is the latest addition. It is the only restaurant not located in Little Italy.
“I sold Zia’s Bistro, but still own and operate Trattoria Fantastica, Café Zucchero and Po Pazzo, said Busalacchi. I was looking for a unique restaurant that had a modern bar and paid homage to the best urban steak house tradition. I wanted it to feature wines from the world’s best vineyards ranging from $10 to $200. People often ask why I named a restaurant Po Pazzo. When my mother heard that I wanted to open another restaurant she said, Tu sei po pazzo, which is Italian for ‘you are a little crazy.’ And being a little crazy, that’s what I named it.”
The restaurant owner and full time Chef is very passionate about his acquisitions and their livelihood. “I’m just as concerned with what comes back to the kitchen as I am about what goes out of the kitchen,” he remarked explaining “if a dish comes back half eaten, I send the waiter back to the table to see if something was wrong with the food.” This attention to detail has brought many celebrities and important people to Busalacchi’s restaurants. “I have met and prepared meals for Jane Seymour of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman fame; Tommy LaSorda, National Baseball Hall of Famer and Henry Mancini.” Busalacchi has also prepared meals for charitable and cultural events. He was once called upon to prepare food in Sacramento for Senator Dole, and at a special airport celebration for Luciano Pavarotti.
The preparation of Sicilian food is very important to Busalacchi, who maintains that it is prepared simply, with few ingredients, very healthful and nutritious. In addition to preparing food, the chef takes classes of approximately 45 students on cooking tours to Italy. There they are taught how to prepare Sicilian dishes.
“I remember when I was eight years old, putting tomato sauce in a bowl covered to keep the flies away, and letting the sun thicken the sauce to make homemade tomato paste,” recalled Busalacchi. From this early beginning, the chef has achieved international recognition and will be preparing to feed 800 people in an upcoming 100th Anniversary Celebration of San Diego’s historic Balboa Park. He was recently honored with the Sicilian Food Award given by the Food and Drug Administration in San Francisco.
But, “it’s not all gravy,” according to Busalacchi, who explained that he sometimes feels he does not have a life. “I have people calling me at all hours asking if I would be willing to fix a special dish for them on a particular evening when they will be eating at my restaurants. Why do I do all this? I can’t stop,” he explains. “Success can be very addicting.”