The deli on Monterey Boulevard at Edna Street is popular with locals as well as those passing through Sunnyside on their way elsewhere. But few know it has been a deli continuously for the last 72 years, with a succession of owners. This is a story about running a local business, but also about immigrants and opportunity—and danger.
The building was constructed in 1947, part of a strip of postwar buildings that went up on previously empty lots.
The delicatessen first opened that same year, founded by two women well into their fifties, both of whom had some familiarity with restaurant work: Alma Fitch and Frances Swensson.
The deli’s first name—Vienna Delicatessen—was Frances’s choice; she was born Franziska Anzengruber in a little town in Austria, and came to San Francisco in her late teens sometime after the Quake and Fire of 1906.
Perhaps the deli featured favorite delicacies she remembered from her native country.
Frances’s second husband Carl Swensson was a cook in the East Bay; she had divorced him several years before, and was by then a single mother of a teenage daughter. Alma’s husband Grover Cleveland Fitch had been a waiter at the St Francis and Sir Francis Drake hotels downtown. Alma had lost her husband in the 1930s, and this tragedy was followed by her son’s conviction for first-degree robbery in 1938, sentenced to San Quentin.
Now they were both women on their own. By the time they opened the deli, Frances lived in Fairmount, and Alma a block away on Monterey Blvd.
Vienna Delicatessen was the shop’s name for twenty years. Frances’s native country, Austria, was renowned for its cuisine, including many specialties such as various sausages and cured meats. The capital Vienna had an association with good eating, as immigrants from there started restaurants in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the 1930s there were several establishments called ‘Vienna Delicatessen’ in various US cities—but by 1947, it was perhaps sounding a bit outdated.
In 1949, Alma and Frances expanded their range to include hot food in a steam table, but this wasn’t a success, so they sold it after only two weeks of use.
After the women had been in business for five years, it was sold to Nina and Cecil Knight, who promptly changed the name to ‘Nina’s Delicatessen.’
Neither had any restaurant experience; Nina had been a saleslady at Weinstein’s department store, and Cecil was a metal polisher at Keystone Metal and Plating. They lived in Holly Park.
It seems they installed neon signs for the shop, as indicated in the ad below. Despite what sounds like a successful venture–gross profits of $59k a year (over half a million in today’s money)–the Knights put their business up for sale after only one year, “due to illness.” It took another year before they finally sold it to Jack and Judith Abrass, who sensibly changed the name back to Vienna Delicatessen.
Ticket to Citizenship
Jack (born Isaac) Abrass had immigrated to the US from Israel in 1950, and during his time owning the deli, he applied for American citizenship, apparently having felt sufficiently well established in the US by then to do so. Jack and Judith then sold the deli in 1957, opening a grocery in the Sunset then, where they lived.
Sam’s Vienna Delicatessen
The next owner was Saverio Versaggi, who had come from Sicily in 1947. Saverio added ‘Sam’s’ to the Vienna name, at least on the sign out front, and that is how everyone in the neighborhood knew the shop. ‘Sam’ was his oldest son Charles’s middle name, and a traditional name in his wife Annie’s family. His first name was always Saverio, but people who didn’t know him well would call him Sam.
Saverio had a remarkable history, which was related to me by his son, Charles. During World War II, Saverio served with the Italian resistance to Mussolini’s fascists, the Italian Co-belligerent Army. “My dad was a hero. He lived a full life,” Charles said. He was a captain major in the Bersaglieri, a specialty corps of the Italian Army. They were known for their use of bicycles, and also for traveling “in double time” that is, running instead of marching.
Saverio fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino, a bloody but victorious Allied assault on Axis powers in Italy. He was commended, the certificate signed by the British Field Marshal Harold Alexander. Saverio had shrapnel in various places in his body until the day he died.
Saverio had a master’s degree in engineering, but this wasn’t credited when he got the US; he wouldn’t be the last deli owner to have an advanced education, as we’ll see.
Charles recalls that his father was “always stern….He lived through the War—none of us knows what that’s like. He didn’t talk about it. I learned about the War from my grandparents. They had to hide in bomb shelters. After two or three days, they would come out to find the whole neighborhood destroyed.”
Saverio married his wife Annie in 1944. Her family was from the same village of Augusta, in Sicily, though she was born in Detroit.
They settled in San Francisco. Before moving to Sunnyside, the Versaggis had lived in North Beach, where Saverio worked in a macaroni factory—the California-Vulcan Macaroni Company, which made ‘Royal brand’ pasta, still a brand today.
Charles remembers going to the macaroni factory when he was a boy, to visit his father on the shop floor during the summers. He took the opportunity to walk down Pacific Street, through the red-light district—“My sex education,” Charles recalls.
In the mid-1950s, Saverio left that business to work at his father-in-law’s fish and produce shop in Bayview. Charles remembers some of the first English words he learned were “May I help you?” while working in the store as a boy; he had been raised in San Francisco speaking Sicilian.
Things didn’t go so well for Saverio with his father-in-law, so he decided to go into business for himself. In 1957 he bought the delicatessen on Monterey.
Soon the family moved to a house on the corner of Hearst and Edna, a block away from the deli. Then that structure was removed about 1961, so the Catholic church across the street could build their convent on the lot in 1962. The family then moved to a house on Joost Avenue, which was their home for the next ten years.
Back to Sicily?
After settling in and prospering in Sunnyside, Saverio pursued his dream to return with his family to the village in Sicily where he and Annie were from. In 1964 he sent Annie and their two younger sons back to live in Augusta, to see if it was possible. But she hated it; the family roots had been established in San Francisco, and the dream of return then died—though the family kept up ties to the old world.
Life on the Boulevard as a Child
Charles worked in his father’s deli in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Two jobs he recalled especially were peeling potatoes for his father’s famous potato salad and cutting up the endless cardboard boxes. His father’s often-repeated refrain: “Charlie, you gotta finish cutting up the boxes!” His friends would wait, hanging out on the corner, while he worked in the little yard in back of the deli.
Then Charles would get to go out with his gang of pals. They had a bicycle club, the ‘Skull and Crossbones’—putting playing cards in their spokes to make a roaring noise like a motorcycle when they rode, and having little license plates with a symbol to match the name. It was a good time; later in life Charles returned to cycling at a competitive level.
Aside from bikes, the gang of boys sometimes went up on the hill where the empty lots on Mount Davidson above Mangels Avenue were finally being built on during the 1960s, and hung out in the half-constructed houses. The Sunnyside Playground was not yet built, so they played on the Sunnyside Elementary School playground, which the school district at that time kept open afternoons and Saturdays.
As an Italian kid, Charles felt he stuck out a bit in Sunnyside. “I had nice Italian shoes,” which his mother bought him on shopping trips to North Beach. Dressing well was a tradition for Versaggi men. Here is his father Saverio in the 1940s.
Roast Beef Sandwich with Potato Salad
Saverio did very well from his time running the deli on Monterey. “He made a shitload of money. It was always busy, especially on the weekends,” Charles said. They had a big turn-over in canned goods (hence the many boxes), as well as freshly prepared sandwiches. Roast beef was the most popular one on the menu then. “We were known for our sandwiches,” recalls Charles. At that time there was a closed-off kitchen in the back, where something was always being cooked. (Now it is the open deli counter, a later alteration.)
They were only held up once, when Saverio and Annie were in the store. The robber used a gun to threaten them. “My mother thought they were going to die,” Charles recalled.
Sam’s Valley Liquors
Saverio sold the deli in 1966 to Antoine and Fouad (Fred) Malouf. After that he opened Sam’s Valley Liquors on Leland Avenue off Bayshore Blvd in Visitacion Valley, in a distinctive 1947 storefront. He ran this for several years, and kept a German shepherd trained to attack on command, to ward off future holdups.
Saverio Versaggi passed away in 2010.
The Brothers Malouf
After taking over in 1966, Antoine and Fouad Malouf kept the ‘Vienna’ name two more years, before changing the it to ‘Antoine’s Delicatessen.’ Antoine had immigrated from Lebanon in 1960, and his brother Fouad in 1964. A few years after they started running the deli, each completed the process of become US citizens–another success story.
Running a deli is not for the faint of heart. Just a year or so after starting, Antoine was robbed at gunpoint, just as Saverio had been a few years before. But Antoine had provided himself with a gun behind the counter, and as the thieves got into their car, he fired six times, hitting one of the men, he told the reporter from the Examiner.
Although Antoine passed away in 1980, Fouad continued to run the deli until the next owner, George Sokhn, took it over in 1985.
George was also an immigrant from Lebanon. He kept the name ‘Antoine’s’ during the years he ran the business, until 2000. Many in the neighborhood still remember George Sokhn.
The Brothers Hamadalla
In 2000, ownership passed to Ziad (“Zee”) Hamadalla. He had been a data analyst at Oracle, but decided to go into the deli business with his brother Basem (“Johnny”). They are Palestinian-American.
They had a nice custom of photographing their customers and then hanging all the photos on a Christmas tree in the holidays.
Ziad changed the name from Antoine’s to ‘Monterey Deli’ as it is still called today. The brothers made several improvements to the store, such as adding the wooden wine racks, which reduced the size of the candy racks. A sign of changing times.
By this point the most popular sandwich had changed to turkey-and-avocado. They had an employee named Aubrey, and the sandwich was her invention, so they named it for her. ‘The Aubrey’ is still on the menu today.
Monterey Deli today
Current owner Almir Zalihic was a customer during the years when Ziad owned it; he would stop for his lunch and coffee between home in the Sunset and work at a printing company in Dogpatch. He was friends with Basem, and around 2011, he started to work at the deli.
Then, in 2012, he took over the business, even though he didn’t have previous restaurant experience. He kept the name. Any time he has a question, he asks his friend Basem—“I can call him anytime,” he told me. (Basem now runs a pizza restaurant, Kezar Pizzetta.)
Once, when he was still just a customer, Almir happened to be in the deli when was it was robbed at gunpoint. They didn’t get much out of the till, but they took Almir’s money, a couple hundred dollars.
“It happened so quick, but I wasn’t scared—but then when we watched the video tape and I saw the gun to my head, that’s when I felt scared!” During his time as owner, the last seven years, he has only been robbed once, a burglary that took place when the shop was closed.
Almir is also an immigrant; he came to the US in 1995 as a child refugee from Bosnia, which by then had undergone years of warfare. Almir’s father had been killed, and with the help of a relative, his mother got forged papers allowing the family to escape to Croatia. Soon after, with the help of a nonprofit assisting war refugees, his family came to the US.
Almir has been a US citizen for many years now. About owning a deli, he said: “It’s hard work and long hours, but you don’t have to have a degree to succeed.” Almir has plenty of regular customers, who stop in not just for the reliably good sandwiches and treats, but for familiar faces and conversation.
Not shy of innovation, Almir has recently added a new twist on the deli standby, coffee–a nitrogen-infused cold-brew from StumptownCoffee.
Almir also generously donates coffee and sandwiches regularly for the meetings of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association.
For over seven decades, Sunnyside has been fortunate to have this well-established corner institution–a ticket to American prosperity for a long series of immigrants, as well as a great spot for lunches and craft beer.
Update 2 March 2021. After 74 years continuous service, the shop at 499 Monterey is no longer a deli. A liquor store has replaced it.
My heartfelt thanks to all the people who shared stories with me, especially Charles Versaggi, Almir Zalihic, Basem Hammad, and Janice Smyth.
- As per prison records for Clyde Fitch, Ancestry.com. ↑
- As per the San Francisco Directory, 1948-49. ↑
- As per San Francisco Directory 1955-1956 and 1940 US Census. ↑
- As per naturalization records, Ancestry.com. ↑
- Exact date unknown; my surmise from directory listing for the deli in 1957 showing Saverio Versaggi as owner. ↑
- As listed in the San Francisco directory in these years. ↑
- As per Federal Naturalization Records for Antoine Wadih Malouf and Fouad Wadih Malouf. Bother were born in Alexandria Egypt in the 1920, but had Lebanese citizenship at the time of immigrating to the US. ↑
- Conversation with Almir Zalihic, January 2019. ↑
- Conversation with Almir Zalihic, January 2019. ↑