Features & Columns

San Jose's Little Italy
Has Big New Plans

Wine, pizza, soccer and abandoned bakeries just go together in Little Italy
The former Alameda French Bakery building will be transformed into a massive venue that will cater to wine and pizza lovers, as well as soccer fanatics.

Wine, pizza, soccer and abandoned bakeries just go together in Little Italy. That's why several folks have conspired for years to transform one of San Jose's original 19th century Italian neighborhoods into a miniature Little Italy of the current day. Not much exists yet, but thanks to the efforts of a whole lot of Italian-Americans, some rip-roaring progress is starting to happen.

The original Italian neighborhood is now the stretch of St. John Street just west of the hideous Highway 87 overpass, right where Henry's Hi-Life now sits. As recently as 100 years ago this was the intersection of San Augustine and Pleasant streets. The park behind this area, and right next to the SAP Center, is the former location of River Street, from which many historic houses were relocated, including an 1885 Italianate that's now the Bel Bacio Italian Cafe.

These days, the entire area seems like a convoluted result of decades of botched city planning, missing pieces of former streets, leftover remnants of other streets, empty parking lots, abandoned buildings, perpetual construction, destruction and re-routings, as well as the embarrassing disaster of a zillion different streets named Almaden. In other words, it's textbook San Jose. People get lost around these parts on a daily basis and no one can ever figure out how to get back on the freeway. It's even worse than Oakland.

But the history is indeed quite savory. A century ago, Henry's Hi-Life was the Torino Hotel, one of several joints that housed Italian immigrants when they first arrived in San Jose. There were tons of food and even a bocce ball court outside.

Despite the perpetual rejiggering of this whole neighborhood, another wave of creativity is currently in the works, via Los Gatos. On one hand, anyone who passes through the Little Italy gateway arch will not find much else besides Bel Bacio and Paesano Ristorante Italiano, but gradual improvements appear to be happening, piece by piece.

For instance, right across St. John from Henry's Hi-Life sits the abandoned Alameda French Bakery building. It's a huge complex, one that most recently accommodated a glass studio in part of the space and the All Amigos Club, a.k.a. the Alano Club, inside the corner subdivision. Before that, way back in the middle of the 20th century, the legendary bakery comprised the whole parcel. Right now, as you read this, the folks behind Enoteca La Storia in Los Gatos are converting the entire 5,000-square-foot property into an interconnected mesh of component parts. This new Enoteca La Storia will include a wine bar that serves New York style pizza, plus a 1,500-square-foot outdoor patio, an indoor boardroom space for meetings, and—drum roll, please—a European soccer-themed sports bar right inside the front corner of the place. Yowza.

Unlike every other joint around here, if you want to watch a soccer match, you won't have to argue with a bar manager that doesn't want to switch the channel from, say, a golf tournament.

But that's the just the front corner space. As owner Joe Cannistraci told me last week, wine bars are dominated by a female clientele that doesn't want a zillion televisions blasting sports every which direction, so the main space will be a wine bar and restaurant with no TVs whatsoever. All the food will be Italian and the wine list will be split among Italian, domestic and other international varietals. Expect 35 wines by the glass. A pizza oven will sit behind the bar.

"New York pizza," Cannistraci emphasized. "Not Napoli wood oven style."

The timing of all this couldn't be better, especially the soccer bar, as the San Jose Earthquakes just hired an Italian general manager. Technically, Jesse Fioranelli grew up in Switzerland and spent time in the U.S., but as of late, he worked at the Italian club AS Roma, as well as its crosstown rival, Lazio. A worldly dude, Fioranelli speaks English, German, Italian, Spanish and French. He apparently knows how to find the right players and close deals, unlike his predecessor. All of which should dovetail with a new Italian soccer joint in one of San Jose's oldest neighborhoods.

Forza azzurri!