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Lala Lands in Little Italy

RESTAURANTS: Busalacchi Group Opens New Eatery

SAN DIEGO – In the restaurant business in San Diego County since Casanova’s Pizzeria opened inside the food court at La Mesa’s Grossmont Center 40 years ago, the Busalacchis – one of San Diego’s founding families of hospitality in Little Italy — have brought a new addition into their dining establishment fold.

Lala, a 1,000-square foot restaurant and cocktail bar, opened earlier this month, taking over what was formerly a pet supply and grooming business at 1919 India St. Lala is a play on the Busalacchi surname and opened next door to the family’s modern Sicilian art-deco inspired dining establishment Barbusa.

P.J. Busalacchi
Managing Partner
Busalacchi’s Restaurants

“Lala was something that we just kind of came up with,” said P.J. Busalacchi, at 34, the youngest of three sons of Busalacchi Restaurants founder Joe Busalacchi Sr., referring to his brothers and first cousin, who together oversee the group’s four restaurants. “We wanted to make it Barbusa’s ‘little sister.’

Obviously our last name is Busalacchi and we wanted it to be a female’s name. My dad wasn’t too keen on the idea at first but then he said, ‘What about Lala?’ and so Lala was born.”

Acquired through a lease two years ago, Lala took some extra time to open, moving through some red tape with the city, and back-and-forth discussions among the family about how the space should be used.

“We tossed around so many different ideas,” P.J. Busalacchi said.

“We thought we might utilize it as an event space for Barbusa, or office space for us. And then we just came up with wanting to do another restaurants because you know… that’s what we know best.”

‘More is More’ Design Approach

During the 180-degree turn from pet store to restaurant with a plush dining room that seats 60 people, the inside was demolished to make room for a new kitchen and all the details that define the Busalacchis’ footprint.

P.J. Busalacchi said the general contractor was Johnny Castaneda but that family did a lot of hands-on work themselves.

“While we were still building it, we had a restaurant tour coming and my brothers and I were working on chairs and tables ourselves and the restaurant tour leader, who has some pretty big restaurants here in San Diego looks at me and said, ‘What are you guys doing?!’ and we all just kind of looked at each other, like ‘That’s how we do it, why not us?’”

P.J. Busalacchi has a managerial role in the family’s four restaurants — which in addition to Barbusa and Lala also includes the dual concept Nonna + Café Zucchero — along with his brothers Joey Busalacchi and Michael Busalacchi as well as first cousin Vince Busalacchi, son of Joe Busalacchi’s brother, Frank Busalacchi.

Another cousin, 30-year industry veteran Nino Zizzo, is executive chef and the head of the family’s culinary offerings, which include modernized Italian classics and comfort foods.

Lala’s bar program was created by Busalacchi Restaurants’ Antonio Gonzales, and is intended to show the versatility and range of Italian spirits alongside a barrel-aged cocktail program.

Inspired by Italian charm with a touch of moody decadence, occupying a “more is more” approach with layered eclectic design influences and tasseled textures, the inside colors include walnut wood paneling, natural stone, two-toned olive leather and velvet furnishings, and hues of coral and burnt sienna throughout.

Playful portraits featuring modern riffs of high society women occupy the walls, including art in the restrooms that incorporate some humorous touches to old oil paintings that Michael Busalacchi picked up at thrift stores, said Lala’s designer Taylor Shaffer.

Shaffer, who made her way through architecture school while working at Barbusa less than a decade ago and has stayed in touch with the family, was hired to help with the vision for Lala when the original designer left during the build.

“When they started the project two years ago they were working with the same designer that did Barbusa,” Shaffer said. “And he had already done most of the basics of (Lala), and then he stepped away. That’s when they called me to kind of do the more surface level stuff… They said they wanted something playful, really inviting and more intimate than Barbusa.”

Taylor Shaffer
Designer
Lala

Under Shaffer’s watchful eye, Lala’s design became a full top-to-bottom buildout, incorporating a covered, street-facing garden patio, dining room and 15-seat wraparound horseshoe-shaped cocktail bar that runs nearly the entire length of the restaurant.

Lala offers seasonally minded main dishes, shareable antipasti plates and craft cocktails.

Family Tradition

Joe Busalacchi Sr. immigrated from Sicily and landed in San Diego in the 1960s, getting his first taste of the industry cooking on tuna boats and working at various local mainstays such as Mona Lisa Deli.

With a deep love for his Italian heritage and building community through food, Busalacchi and his brother Frank started their journey as restaurant owners and operators in 1984 with Casanova’s Pizza. The siblings also opened a small fish shop in the mall, then later sold it and the pizza joint together, using that as funding to open Hillcrest’s beloved (and now closed) Busalacchi’s on Fifth.

The brothers opened six different concepts from Cedar Street to Grape Street for more than two decades, breathing new life into downtown San Diego and transforming it into the gastronomic and cultural epicenter that it is today.

Lala’s design is ‘playful, inviting and intimate,’ according to designer Taylor Shaffer. Photo courtesy Busalacchi Restaurant Group

Lala (part of Busalacchi Restaurants)
FOUNDED: 1984 (2024 for Lala)
FOUNDER: Joe Busalacchi Sr.
HEADQUARTERS: Little Italy
BUSINESS: Restaurant group
EMPLOYEES: 120 (overall)
WEBSITE: lalasd.com
CONTACT: @BarLalaSD
SOCIAL IMPACT: The restaurant group works with myriad charities, including the Friends of Scott Foundation.
NOTABLE: Founder Joe Busalacchi Sr.’s sons Joey, Michael and P.J. Busalacchi, as well as his nephew Vincent Busalacchi, run Lala and the group’s three other dining establishments.

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