“I am most passionate about bringing my knowledge [of tasting] to consumers, “said an enthusiastic Orietta Gianjorio, a native Italian from Rome,...
Driving along India Street in Little Italy, among the many boutiques and restaurants that line the one-way streets that are common to many neighborhoods in San Diego, one will eventually come across a community icon at the intersection of India and West Hawthorn streets. An obelisk stands proudly on the corner, topped with a red pyramid that is reminiscent of the terracotta roofs back in Italy. The awnings are the Italian flag’s red, white and green and on the side of the building, one sees the half-smiling face made famous by Leonardo da Vinci.
This is Mona Lisa Italian Foods and it is a neighborhood landmark of Little Italy.
The reins have passed through three different generations of the Brunetto family, beginning first with Stefano Brunetto in 1956 – first at a different location, moving to its current address in ’73 – and moving down the line to cousins Stefano and Stefano Brunetto.
The location is the same; even the names are the same (“It doesn’t get confusing at all,” laughs Brunetto, who explains they’re often distinguished as “Stefano Restaurant Manager” and “Stefano Office Manager”. But as second-generation Italian-Americans, is the culture any different than what it was for their grandfather when he first came to America?
Brunetto – Office Manager – explained that as a child growing up he never felt that being Italian set him apart from the rest of the children at school. On the contrary, he says, “what I did realize is when I went to school up here and I would hear someone say, ‘I’m Italian,’ I would relate to them automatically because you kind of have similar values and mindsets. So for me more than anything, it was something that brought me together with different people rather than having any kind of conflict or discrimination.”
Today, as active members of the Italian-American community of San Diego, both Brunettos feel that kind of instant bond between Italians still exists.
Restaurant Manager Brunetto describes the community as a ‘bubble,’ preserving the culture and heritage of a bygone era that doesn’t even exist back in Italy today.
“Things are changing as you go back to Sicily,” he says. “For example, the Sicilian language is [evolving]; people are speaking more Italian now than Sicilian. And culture is changing over there; yet over here in Little Italy, we’re still in our bubble. We’re still speaking Sicilian; we still have somewhat of the same cultural ideals. When you go back to Sicily, you’ll find maybe that people aren’t getting married at age 21 or 18, they’re kind of staying more with their parents, people aren’t getting married, maybe people aren’t having kids. But over here in San Diego, we’re still kind of based off that 1950s paradigm of Italian culture and nothing’s really changed.”
Echoing that sentiment, his cousin concedes that each generation may lose a bit of the culture as time goes on, but at least for them – running the family business with the same values instilled in them by their parents and grandparents – the bubble remains intact, keeping their culture and heritage very much in the forefront of their daily lives despite the generation gap between them and their grandparents who first emigrated to America.
“With every generation that’s born, maybe we do lose a little bit of that culture,” he explains. “But because we are around the business in Little Italy, I think that helps us remember our culture. I have a bunch of customers who come in and they’re talking to my dad and my uncles and they’re speaking Sicilian; they have those same values. It is like we’re in our own little bubble and that helps keep the tradition alive and the culture alive.”
As time pushes forward in its relentless march toward progress, the Brunetto cousins vow to remain true to the core values established by their fathers and grandfathers before them.
“It’s kind of a pledge to the community that this place…You can come back here thirty years from now and it’ll be, whether you like it or not, it’s gonna be exactly the same,” says Brunetto. “It’s gonna have the family pictures on the wall…We want to be part of the culture; we want to be the center of the culture. Not just another restaurant.”