An Italian American LA Christmas, From 7 Fishes to the Great Carduni

How history, ancestry and culinary traditions amplify the Christmas experience each and every year.

By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor 

The Great Carduni Hunt

My first sighting of holiday-themed merchandise for 2019 took place over the summer when it was 94 degrees outside. As I was making my way to the register at the local pharmacy with a bottle of sunscreen in my hand, wham-mo! There it was, a clustering of tabletop Christmas villages that played a screechy, slightly off-key version of Jingle Bells, alongside a handful of artificial, pre-lit trees and a dozen or so bright red stockings—just in case you wanted to get an early start on Christmas decorating while watching the fireworks. Before I had even purchased my turkey this Thanksgiving, some of the major shopping centers were already holding their tree-lighting ceremonies. Given the lines of cars waiting to enter the parking lot, it seems the notion of visiting Santa before consuming the first piece of pumpkin pie is not so strange anymore. The monetization of Christmas, as much as we lament it, is nothing new. It was, in fact, the retail industry of the 1920s that advanced the concept of the “Christmas shopping season.” Perhaps the hyper-commercialization of the holidays that we are presently witnessing is simply the natural progression of Christmas economics.

 A view of Los Angeles from the Hollywood Hills at Christmastime. (Courtesy of Jacob Avanzato)

Whatever the case, I find myself rejecting “Christmas on steroids” and clinging to a more spiritual and introspective observation of the holidays these days. Blame it on my heritage and upbringing, which socialized me to perceive Christmas as a season steeped in tradition and rich with significance. Among the activities that bring me the greatest joy during the holidays are coming together to decorate the Christmas tree with ornaments that have been in our family for over 70 years, attending Midnight Mass with my son at the church where we were both baptized, and preparing heirloom recipes that speak to my family’s immigration journey.

Festive Feasts

The central place that food occupies in Italian and Italian American culture is well documented. Food is a vehicle through which we express love and we nurture those dear to us. Whether we are conducting business or celebrating a milestone, food is omnipresent. This cultural proclivity is further reflected in the Italian language. The Italian word compagno, which means “companion, partner, or friend,” derives from the Latin words cum, meaning “together with,” and panis, or “bread.” Combined, the words mean “those who eat the same bread,” or, phrased in modern terms, “those who break bread together.” Culinary traditions, including ones that are directly traced to the Old Country and those that represent an amalgamation of Italian and American foodways, are gloriously showcased in Italian American holiday rituals. The festive foodscapes of the Italian American table also reveal how cultural identity, history, gender, memory, celebration, and ritual are intertwined. This rings true in my own household. Cooking, in addition to being a passion, represents a worldview. It helps form the foundation of health and mindfulness and a life well lived. Cooking is also a way through which I honor and preserve the memories of loved ones who can no longer join us in their earthly bodies at the holiday table.

Over the past decade, Los Angeles, my hometown, has become a food destination, with many acclaimed chefs establishing restaurants in the city, and an even larger number of establishments specializing in the cuisine of the city’s diverse residents, who hail from over 110 different countries. When it comes to ingredients, you can find most anything you desire in Los Angeles. Preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes this Christmas? The city’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the catches flown in daily from all over the world makes sourcing excellent seafood—from fresh shrimp and baccala to scungilli and octopus—quite simple. The dozens of family-owned Italian bakeries, delis, and groceries offer sfogliatelle, panforte, Italian sausage, freshly made ricotta, and scores of imported and artisanally produced products. You may be surprised to know that long before the glamour of Tinseltown arrived, Los Angeles was an agrarian community. Italian immigrants played an integral role in the development of the region’s agricultural industry and continue to dominate the produce industry. You can find most any fruit or vegetable in the city’s wholesale produce markets, which import produce from distant stretches of the globe, and ship fruits and vegetables grown in California—the cultivator of more than half the fruit, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States—nationwide.

A Los Angeles seafood market.

Despite the bounty of the Los Angeles cornucopia, there is one vegetable that has become increasingly elusive in recent years, a vegetable without which Christmas, for me, is incomplete: the cardoon. Tracking down this coveted vegetable often involves scouring a dozen or more markets and delis—a process I have come to refer to as “the great cardoon hunt.”

Cut cardoons at a farmer’s market. (Courtesy of Timothy Vollmer)

Cardoons, carduni, cardi, cardone, and garduni. Italian Americans have a number of ways to refer to the Cynara cardunculus, also known as the artichoke thistle, and most commonly, the cardoon. Cardoons, which are close cousins of the artichoke and native to the Mediterranean, were a common staple on the tables of ancient Rome. If you have never seen cardoons before, the harvested portion—the part you would bring home from the grocery store—looks like a giant head of prehistoric celery. The stalks are slightly fuzzy, almost velvety, and iridescent, with small spines running along the outer edges. Cardoons have an artichoke-like flavor and, if prepared correctly, a mildly sweet finish. Like the artichoke, they require a bit of work to prepare but the payoff is nothing short of sublime.

Finding cardoons at grocery stores never failed to excite my father, who would typically, shortly before the holidays, bring home a few bunches of the delicious vegetable he referred to as carduni. He prepared the cardoons as his father had, first blanching them to tenderize them and remove the bitterness, and then lightly breading and frying them. The end product was a cardoon that was crisp on the exterior and so tender it was almost molten inside.

A plate of fried cardoons prepared using my nonnu’s recipe.

Why are cardoons a rarer sight in markets these days? I would like to believe that the popularity of the vegetable has increased due to its promotion by chefs such as Mario Batali, whose most popular preparations include carduni gratinati. Maybe cardoons are the newest vegetable from Italian gardens to be made trendy, similar to the Calabrese chili, zucchini blossoms, Tuscan (lacinato) kale, broccolini, romanesco, rapini—and yes, cauliflower. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a “run on cardoons” of sorts. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that as we become more of a convenience-driven culture, cardoons prove too daunting for most people.

Cardoon Adventures

Two years ago, my Christmastime cardoon hunt brought me out to a boutique grocery store in the San Fernando Valley, which confirmed they had cardoons in stock when I called. This is the type of store where half the shoppers look like actors (and many of them are), and everything is atrociously expensive. It’s the store where you can find cheese imported from the Azores that is produced only once a year using milk collected under a full moon from cows that are being serenaded—should that be one of the necessities on your shopping list. Given my important mission, I wasted no time and headed directly to the produce section, where I tracked down the produce manager.

“Hi, I called earlier about the carduni.

The produce manager, who I learned was Guatemalan, took one look at me and, with a slight smirk, asked, “You Italian?”

“Italian American, yes,” I responded.

“How YOU doin’?” he retorted, in his best rendition of a New York tough guy.

Everyone has jokes in Hollywood, apparently.

I selected two bunches of cardoons and went to pay. “Your total is $17.58,” the checker informed me. Madonna mia! Nearly $20 for two bunches of carduni, I thought, as I swiped my credit card. The carduni have evidently moved on up to a more desirable zip code.

In December last year, I visited five markets—all my usual haunts—in search of carduni but still turned up empty-handed, so I began calling around.

“Yes, hello. May I speak with your produce manager?”

Click (hold music)

“Produce department.”

“Hi, do you have any cardoons in stock?”

“Cardoons? What are they?”

“They look like a giant celery.”

“We have celery, but just the normal size.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Hang up.

Cardoons at a boutique grocery in Los Angeles.

This conversation was repeated no fewer than twenty times, with the various markets I called either not knowing what cardoons are, having already sold their supply, or not having received any that season. My husband, who was overhearing the conversations from an adjacent room, began to take pity on me after the nineteenth call and inquired who I hadn’t contacted yet, so that he could help. My twenty-first call was to an Italian deli in Pasadena that, when I contacted them the day before, said that they thought the market would be receiving another shipment the following day. I finally hit pay dirt. “Yeah, we got cardoons,” the store manager stated nonchalantly. “You DO?!” I stammered incredulously. “Great! I’ll be right over. Wait! Can you put aside two bunches for me?” The manager stated something to the effect of them having plenty of cardoons, but I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. “I know you are very busy,” I pleaded with her, but I have been searching for carduni for days now. I live about fifteen miles away and it will take me about an hour to get to you in traffic,” I explained. Understanding the full extent of my cardoon emergency, the kind lady agreed to place two bunches of carduni on hold until I arrived. “But you may want to select two different bunches,” she cautioned, “as I don’t know what kind of cardoons you are looking for.”

Cardoon elation.

Sure enough, when I arrived, there was an entire case of carduni waiting. I didn’t bother to ask if the manager had actually put any cardoon aside for me and selected two pristine pale green bunches. After filling my hand basket with a few more Italian delicacies, I made my way over to check out. “What’s that?!” the woman behind me in line asked, motioning to the cardoons, which I was cradling in my arms like an infant. She was carrying six panettone, which she felt compelled to inform me were not all for her own consumption. (She planned to give them to her “Italian friends.”) “Is that some kind of celery?” she asked quizzically. “No,” I responded. “They’re cardoons, similar to artichokes.” This thoroughly confused her, evidently, because she looked at me as if I was crazy. “Well, what do you do with them?” As I began to explain the various preparations, including my own—fried—she interjected impatiently. “So, you just cut them up and fry them?” “Not exactly,” I replied. “First you have to remove their strings and thorns and then you blanch them.” I lost her at thorns. Her eyes began to roll back in her head. It was my turn in line. “Why don’t you go in front of me since you have all the…panettone?” I suggested. As much as I was enjoying providing a cooking lesson, I was also basking in the glory of having successfully located the carduni and was afraid she would faint if I shared any more details surrounding their preparation.

Carduni 2019

I am not sure as to where exactly I will purchase my carduni this year. Just before Thanksgiving, I spotted them at a local produce market and inquired with the manager as to whether he could order me a couple of bunches for pick-up on December 22. He assured me it wasn’t a problem. Just in case, I asked my girlfriend, Teresa, a fellow cardoon enthusiast, to serve as a cardoon spotter for me. I’m fully prepared to embark on another cardoon hunt. Cardoons, for me, are more than a tasty vegetable. One bite and I’m taken back to the years when my dad was still with us and we prepared the cardoons together in his kitchen. The vegetable’s ability to transport me to a bygone era is indeed a great gift that I cherish each holiday season.

In case you stumble upon cardoons and want to try preparing them, I have included my grandfather’s recipe.

My grandfather, Mercurio Ferdinando “Fred” Gatto.

Nonnu Mercurio “Fred” Gatto’s Fried Carduni

1 bunch cardoons

1 lemon

Good quality coarse salt

¾ cup all-purpose flour

4 eggs, beaten

1½ cups dry bread crumbs

¼ cup grated Pecorino

A few pinches of red pepper flakes, oregano, rosemary, and garlic powder

Oil, for frying

Freshly grated Pecorino or Parmigiano, for garnish

Chopped parsley, for garnish

Lemon wedges, for serving

Select cardoons that are firm (as opposed to spongey) and pale green, as they will be less bitter.

Cardoons in the process of being cleaned and prepared for cooking.
  1. Wash the cardoons to remove any dirt and debris and separate each stalk from the head. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Next, prepare the cardoons for cooking. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the juice of half a lemon. Trim the cardoon stalks; remove all the leaves from the top and, using a paring knife, shave off the little spikes from the outer edges of each stalk. Peel away the stringy fibers from the ribs, much as you would with celery. Cut each stalk crosswise into 3” pieces and place in the lemon water bath.
  3. When the water has come to a boil, drain the cardoons and place them in the boiling water with the juice of the other half of the lemon. Allow the cardoons to cook for 15–30 minutes (depending on the size of the pieces), until they are just tender.
  4. Meanwhile, fill a bowl with iced water. When the cardoons have finished cooking, remove them from the boiling water and place them in the ice bath to stop the cooking process.
  5. Once cool, drain the cardoons on a paper towel. In a shallow bowl, whisk the eggs until they turn a pale yellow color. In a separate shallow bowl, mix together the flour, red pepper, and herbs. In the last bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Dredge the cardoons, one at a time, first in the flour, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs.
  6. Heat two inches of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or frying pan. Fry the cardoons in small batches, turning them halfway through cooking to brown both sides. The cardoons take about two minutes to cook and will be golden brown when finished.
  7. Transfer the cardoons to a plate lined with paper towels and season with salt. (Waiting until after frying to add the salt discourages the breading from pulling away from the cardoon.) Garnish with more cheese, chopped parsley, and lemon wedges and serve. Garnish with grated Parmesan and chopped parsley, then serve with lemon wedges.

Buon Natale e Buon Appetito!


~Marianna Gatto is a historian and the executive director-cofounder of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.


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