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Blast from the past: C&M Deli’s artichoke frittata recipe

Thanks to the La Jolla Light readers who helped me track down the Sicilian family behind the old C & M Deli and its beloved artichoke frittatas, I found their recipe and report it here.

The search started two weeks ago at the request of reader Bonnie Nickel, who called reminiscing about the dish and starting all this fuss!

The mystery unraveled to reveal a wonderful story about history, heritage and everyday heroes whose life and times are The American Dream.

The sought-after frittatas recipe comes from Joanna Sanfilippo Cresci, the third daughter of Mariano Sanfilippo and Antonina Carini of Porticello, Sicily, two lovebirds who immigrated to America in 1912. The couple eventually settled in Little Italy, San Diego where they raised EIGHT daughters.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Joanna’s artichoke frittatas (twists on a family favorite) were added to the menu of C & M (Cresci and Mercurio) Deli on Girard Avenue in La Jolla, co-owned by her husband, John Cresci, and her brother-in-law Joe Mercurio. The pair opened a produce store in 1958 that morphed into the deli by 1961.

Among the best-selling items were the artichoke frittatas and slices of sfinciuni, a soft and spongey baked sweet bread topped with caramelized onions, cheese, sausage meat and sun-dried tomato concentrate — anchovies optional — the Sicilian version of pizza.

When the men retired, they sold the deli. Today the building houses The Girard Gourmet.

The family proudly shares the frittata recipe, which has been published in a cookbook “narrated” by Joanna’s sister, daughter number six, Esther Sanfilippo Navarro, also a top-notch cook whose tips and recipes fill the 122 pages. A few other relatives supplied recipes, as well.

“Olives On the Table: Memories from a Sicilian Kitchen” was written by family friend Bethany C. Atherton, and based on the conversations, recipes and cooking lessons she had with Esther, who is now 91 and living in Mission Hills. (Esther and her husband Vincenzo (Jim) Navarra founded Jerome’s Furniture Warehouse in 1954.)

Carmel Romano, Joanna’s daughter and Esther’s niece, supplied the book’s charming illustrations. It is also is sprinkled with family photos chronicling the eight Sanfilippo sisters’ early life in Little Italy, and an interpretive history of Sicilian customs and traditions by Atherton who, captivated by Esther’s nuances, came to research the dishes and ingredients which she found harkened back to the glory days of the Roman Empire.

The conquest of Sicily, writes Atherton, brought the Romans Sicilian chefs whom they regarded as household status symbols.

Go ahead. Eat like an Emperor! Prepare a plate of these amazing frittatas. Buon appetito!

Artichoke Frittata (Frittata Di Carciofo)

  • 12 small artichokes
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 garlic cloves, pressed (or 1/2 teaspoon of dried garlic)
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 3 cups breadcrumbs
  • 2 chopped onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 4 fat basil leaves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the outer leaves from the artichokes, quarter them and cover with the juice of 2 lemons. Parboil the artichokes, drain and chop into small dice. In a large bowl, mix the artichokes with all the other ingredients and then form into patties. Cook slowly in Wesson oil (or grape seed oil). Do not dry fry.
Note from Carmel Romano: The frittatas can also be made substituting zucchini, asparagus or spinach for the artichokes. This Old World dish was served on Fridays — the day Catholics fasted from eating meats. Usually, it was made as a pie and cut into slices, but at the deli, it was sold as a little pancake.”

La Jolla Light reader testimonials:

Catherine Lawrence:

“Oh yes. These were so excellent! We just enjoyed them. When I read about the search for the recipe, I called my daughter, Hilee, who now lives in Concord, California and she remembered them, too! The sausage sold at the deli was quite excellent, as well.”

Oma Wegeforth:

“I’ve been a Bird Rock resident for 47 years and I remember those artichoke frittatas fondly. I’m looking for someone who makes them, too.”

Al Russo Jr.:

My family was in the food business, and I have nothing but good things to say about those C & M frittatas except, What a treat! My former classmates and I reminisce about them on Facebook! I grew up in La Jolla, attended Stella Maris Junior High. My parents owned The Village Cupboard. The Spot occupies the building now. We’d walk home from school and stop in the C&M deli. They had an incredible menu.”

Mary Ellen Jordan:

I taught school in Bird Rock where Anthony Romano (a relative of the restaurant owners) was my student. When I read about your quest for the frittatas recipe, I called him up to get some leads for you. He’s a lawyer now.”

To buy the book

‘Olives on the Table’ (March 2009) by Bethany C. Atherton and Esther Sanfilippo Navarra, $30, is available online at

annie-navarra.com

or at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park.