Sicilian-born Joe Busalacchi came to San Diego at age 8 with his family and learned English at Washington School in Little Italy. He started out as a chef, and many of the recipes used in all the Busalacchi kitchens are his, although each has its own chef now. "At 18, I went back to Italy for about a year to study at the Culinary Institute of Palermo," he recalls. "Then I went fishing. I got my first job in the tuna fleet in San Diego, and I worked for about five years as a chef in the tuna industry.
"After that I opened my first place in Grossmont Shopping Center, a fast-food operation in the food court. Then I opened another one there, the Busalacchi Fish Company. When I got bought out, I opened up my first restaurant, Busalacchi's, up on Fifth Avenue. After 24 years in the same location I’ve opened a new and improved Busalacchi’s down the street.
"About 16 years ago, I opened Trattoria Fantastica in Little Italy," says Joe. "There was nothing nearby then, so I took a gamble when I did something in that neighborhood. When the lease came up next door to Fantastica, I took it and opened Cafe Zucchero as an Italian pastry shop. A cousin who owns one of the largest bakeries in Italy came over and helped us get that started, and then my brother Frank became the baker. He supplies all of our breads, our gelati, most of our desserts. Between the various restaurants, we make almost everything from scratch. Our own bread, our pastries, our gelato products, our own soft pasta, the ravioli -- we have all the pasta machines, [including] a Pasquini machine that comes from Italy."
Busalacchi briefly owned a seafood restaurant at the Pensione, across the street from the Reader headquarters. With only 40 seats, the restaurant ate up more time than its size merited, so he sold it to one of his staff. (It's now called Vincenzo's.) Meanwhile, his wife Lisa and grown sons joined him in managing the growing restaurant mini-empire. Then came a bigger project: "The parcel down the street that became Po Pazzo was an old theater occupied by Buffalo Breath, a costume-rental place. I knew the lady that owned the building, and I was thinking of buying it -- but I didn't. An architect came in and bought the building, moved his office upstairs, and asked me if I'd be interested in opening another restaurant there. I said, 'Okay, I guess another one in Little Italy.' Six restaurants within a block. Everybody thinks I own Little Italy, but I don't.
"I designed most of the place and decorated it. I wanted it to look like a New York atmosphere, with a little bit of music. I decided to do a bit more with the food there -- a little prime beef, a little French, a little Italian, a little Continental. More of a fun kind of club, a little higher-end than what I had down here. And that's it! I'm going to call it quits! I'm getting too old for this. My dream is to do what I'd really like to do -- but San Diego is still a pretty tough town to really show what I could do [in cooking]. But I'm fairly happy now, and people have been pretty happy with what we've done."