Restaurant family with deep roots in Little Italy stakes its claim in Old Town
Pietro Busalacchi, Sal Busalacchi and Gustavo Rios opened Trattoria Don Pietro in 2020 and will open El Sueño a few blocks away this summer
For more than 40 years, the Busalacchi name has been synonymous with Little Italy’s restaurant scene. But one branch of the Busalacchi family tree is now making its mark in another historic San Diego community.
In August 2020, father-and-son restaurateurs Sal and Pietro Busalacchi, with Sal’s longtime friend, attorney Gustavo Rios, opened their first restaurant venture together: Trattoria Don Pietro, at 2415 San Diego Ave. in Old Town. Their second and even more ambitious venture, a lavish two-story Mexican restaurant and cocktail lounge named El Sueño, will open this summer in the long-shuttered La Piñata Mexican Restaurant at 2836 Juan St.
Pietro Busalacchi, 28, grew up working in his father’s former restaurants before striking out on his own in L.A.’s hospitality industry in his early 20s. But his dream was to open a restaurant with his dad in his hometown of San Diego. They spent five years looking for a location before settling on the Old Town space that’s now home to the 210-seat Trattoria Don Pietro.
The restaurant is named after Sal’s late father, the senior 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 out fishing with his dad, then he began working in Little Italy restaurants before starting his own, Hollywood Pizza, in 1978. Later, Sal ran a business importing high-end Italian espresso machines and then another Little Italy restaurant that he sold in 2013. His extended Busalacchi family still owns many Little Italy restaurants.
Trattoria Don Pietro serves authentic Sicilian recipes that Cristina Busalacchi, now 92, brought over from the island nearly 60 years ago. The younger Pietro said that in his teens he used to watch his grandmother make these dishes every day in her Mission Hills kitchen. With his brother Joe’s help, Pietro has re-created her dishes with some adaptations to suit California tastes. For example, some of his favorite family dishes — like sardine meatballs and anchovy sauce — don’t appeal to American diners.
Pietro serves as the restaurant’s general manager, bar manager and cocktail crafter. The restaurant’s specialties are its Bolognese sauce, beef short rib, lobster ravioli and sfincione, which is a Sicilian pan-style pizza. He said the trattoria is known for its celebratory atmosphere, vibrant music and imaginative cocktails, like an espresso martini, Emerald City pistachio drink and Half Blood Prince negroni.
The trio’s next big venture is El Sueño, which means “the dream” in Spanish. They’re hoping for a July opening. Pietro said he based its “eatertainment” concept on his travels through Mexico, describing it as a luxurious hideaway that has been abandoned and overgrown by the jungle.
“It will be Kettner Exchange meets Javier’s meets Pablo Escobar’s secret over-the-top retreat.”
Before moving back to San Diego a few years ago, Pietro worked in Los Angeles at Lisa Vanderpump’s luxurious Tom Tom Restaurant & Bar. There, he said he learned a lot about creating the kind of service-forward vibe and atmosphere that he wants at El Sueño.
“It begins the moment guests step foot into the restaurant. Each time they return, we want them to be wowed — to say, ‘I haven’t seen that before,’” he said. “And we want them to feel like this is their place — always welcomed. Service is a priority. Food quality ... another priority. Dining should be the full experience.”
At 6,000 square feet, El Sueño will accommodate up to 600 people, with a rooftop bar and DJs on some nights. Its menu will be Mexican, but with a focus on high-end ingredients, elegant plating and California twists on traditional dishes.
If El Sueño is as successful as Trattoria Don Pietro has been, Pietro said he hopes there are more Old Town restaurants in his investment group’s future.
“There are not a lot of big-name restaurant groups here (in Old Town) right now and there hasn’t been much turnover in the past 20 years. This area is up for grabs,” he said.
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