My Loyalty Earned: What’s so Great About Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets

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I want to tell you an interesting story involving a piece of cheese, but first I’m going to tell you about a local grocery/specialty chain called Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. I’m not entirely certain when they began using the “Fresh Markets” moniker, but I can assure you I’ve been a fan since before that time. When I was young, my folks used to refer to them only as “Caputo’s” and to this day, I generally do the same.

What began as a small market in Elmwood Park has since grown to eight stores around Chicagoland. All carry the same things for which Caputo’s has become so well known: an incredible amount of fresh produce, fresh Italian bread and other baked goods, and a deli that not only carries a wide variety of Italian meats and cheeses, but also knows how to slice them, all at phenomenal prices. Me, I have shopped at three of their stores. While I lived in Bensenville, for roughly 14 years, I would visit the Caputo’s in Addison, which was their second location. During that same period, my commute to work occasionally took me past the original location in Elmwood Park, and I did stop there a few times—once just to be able to say that I had been there, and a few times after that to check the price, quality and availability of plum tomatoes by the bushel, for my parents, who made many jars of home-canned tomato sauce every fall.

For those of you who may not know, when I say “Italian specialties,” I refer to a category of foodstuffs that are uniquely Italian and that cannot generally be found in a typical American supermarket. And if you can find it there, odds are you won’t find an employee who understands what it’s for or how to slice it, cook it, or serve it. Examples include castagne (chestnuts, excellent for roasting if you know how, quite a big mess in a small package if you don’t), sopressata (one of many variations of salami), and baccalà (dried and salted cod, a traditional Christmas Eve dish, the smell of which can linger right on through Easter). Some non-Italian types get baccalà mixed up with baklava, a Greek/Turkish pastry made of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and drenched in honey. This is a mistake you will make only once, I assure you.

When I moved to Plainfield in 2000, much to my dismay, I discovered that I had moved miles away from the nearest Caputo’s location and just about any other Italian specialty market of consequence. Now this may seem like no big deal to you, but let me tell you, I felt the loss. I grew up in Blue Island, a town that borders Chicago and, at one time, was home to many Italian families. We had our own Italian specialty store, called Calabria Imports, from 1975 on. Before that, it was just a short drive to a place called Italian Cheese on 115th Street in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. For Italian pastries, there was (and still are) Naples Bakery in Evergreen Park and of course, the Original Ferrara Bakery in what remains of Chicago’s “Little Italy” neighborhood on Taylor Street. My point here is that when I was growing up in south suburban Blue Island, and again as a young(er) man living in far west suburban Bensenville, when I wanted Italian specialties, I didn’t have to go far to find them. But that all went away when I moved to Plainfield, tucked far, far away in southwest exurbia—a mystical land beyond the suburbs, where everybody moved to get away from it all, and then wondered why.

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Until 2006. That’s when Caputo’s Fresh Markets opened their southern Naperville location, on the northwest corner of 111th Street and Illinois Route 59. The place is huge and features everything one has come to expect from Caputo’s—produce, deli, bakery, meats, wine, and more. My nose dances for joy when I walk into this place. Those who know me well know that I love to cook and when I plan on preparing something special for my family and friends, Caputo’s is generally where I begin. It’s not exactly next door to my home, but it’s close enough.

And now for the rest of my story. Ready? Say cheese!

Caciocavallo is a type of stretched-curd cheese produced throughout southern Italy, including the region from which my mother and father came. Similar to provolone, this type of cheese is typically found hanging in pairs of teardrop-shaped balls. The aged version has a unique flavor and a hard, edible rind. I grew up with this stuff and learned to love it. Whenever anybody in my extended family made a trip to the old country, they would return with caciocavallo strategically hidden throughout their luggage. If you have never tasted the genuine article, don’t judge.

Well, lo and behold, the deli department at Caputo’s Fresh Markets has developed an impressive offering of meats and cheeses over the years, including fresh and aged versions of caciocavallo! I’ve tried both, but prefer the aged version, because of my lifelong familiarity with it. Give me a piece of aged caciocavallo, some Italian cured meats, a loaf of crusty Italian bread, and a bottle of good wine, and I will be happy for some time—or at least as long as my treats hold out. So needless to say, every so often during my excursions to Caputo’s, if I wanted a special treat for me and/or my loved ones, I would pick up those very things.

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A week before Christmas, my son and I were at Caputo’s in Naperville, mainly to pick up a few pounds of their mild Italian sausage and some fresh bell peppers. Because the weather has been so mild this season, I wanted to roast some peppers and grill some sausages, outside. But since we were there anyway, we also opted to make a detour through the deli, to pick up some lunch meats and cheese for the coming week. We rarely plan our deli purchases, but rather make them based on whatever is on sale or whatever we have a taste for at the time.

“Hey, Pop, what are we getting?”

“I don’t know, son, what do you have a taste for?”

“Well, if it were up to me, I’d get some salami and a little prosciutto.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “but what about some cheese?”

“Well we have to get some slicing provolone, right?”

He was thinking too small for the occasion.

“Okay, but how about a little caciocavallo? You know, just to nibble on.”

My son’s eyes lit up and he gave a hey-it’s-your-money shrug as he replied, “Sure!”

But we couldn’t find any, neither fresh nor aged. In fact we made three laps around the deli area, just to make sure they hadn’t moved it when they reorganized the packaged goods. Nope, nothing. So we went home with everything we had gone for, plus bread, Genoa salami, hot sopressata, and sliced provolone. And mind you, we ate well. But it bothered me that my favorite Italian cheese might no longer be available from my local source.

By the following day, my curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I wrote an email to a contact I had made some time ago at Caputo’s Fresh Markets corporate headquarters in Carol Stream. I explained my interest and just asked, “Please let me know if this item is only out of stock temporarily or if it has been discontinued.”

The answer I got back, that very same day, was heartwarming:

“You actually picked the right person to ask, I am in charge of all the deli departments in our company!

“The company that we get the cryovaced caciocavallo cheese from has recently cut down their deliveries so that particular product is harder to get hold of, but we definitely still have access to Imported caciocavallo cheese. Do you prefer the aged or fresh? I believe the imported only comes in aged form, but I can look into seeing if there is a fresh version available. Please let me know and I will make sure Naperville has it in stock.

“Thank you for reaching out to me, and Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you and your family as well! As a family owned and operated company, we truly appreciate your support!”

CaciocavalloSeveral more emails were exchanged, but the long and short of it is that before the day was over, my son had gone back to the same store and returned with a small chunk of imported caciocavallo that tasted better than the (presumably) domestic variety that I had bought before. We have since then tasted the cheese and found it to be quite excellent.

CacioTasteBut product quality aside, what kind of corporate retailer answers an email from a nobody like me the very same day I send it? I’ll tell you. This kind of retailer. Still family-owned and still taking a family pride in all that they do. The kind of company whose General Manager—the gentleman with whom I corresponded—is related to the company’s founder, in this case, Angelo Caputo.

That, my friends and followers, is what’s so great about Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. By all means check them out. You will thank me.

Until next time…

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Chillin’ in December at Kankakee River State Park

22921273863_4abedfc596_oIt was supposed to have been warmer. The original forecast for December 5, 2015 had included a high temperature at or near 50 degrees, not bad for any December day in Northern Illinois, but the morning fog and cloud cover had hung around much longer than expected. Before I had learned of all this – before I had even gotten out of bed, in fact – I had decided that I would go for at least a short motorcycle ride. Imagine my surprise when I glanced down at my dashboard readouts during a particularly chilly stretch of road and saw 38° F as the ambient temperature.

23252590810_625f47470f_oToward the end of this past riding season, which in these parts frequently happens in November, if not October, I had begun taking rides to some of my favorite local nature spots. Once there I would snap a few photos to show a friend of mine, who has yet to visit these destinations. On a warm November 1, I rode out to Starved Rock State Park and ascended to the namesake bluff. On another unseasonably warm day in November, I rode to Silver Springs State Park and walked around Loon Lake. But where to go on this day, on an allegedly unseasonably warm day in December, one with salt-free roads, no less?

23439829282_bd280b257f_oI knew just the right place, another favorite spot of mine. Kankakee River State Park, which straddles both sides of the Kankakee River for about 11 miles, just west of Bourbonnais. I like this particular park for two reasons – three if you count the fact that it’s only 35 miles from my home. First and foremost is the destination, a predominantly forested area that offers walking/hiking trails (many of them paved) and scenic views of the river. But besides the park itself, I really enjoy riding the roads that lead to and from this destination.

23522265556_3942bc42cb_oFrom my home in Plainfield, the quickest way to the fun part is via Interstate 55. I should have known something was up when I could feel colder-than-expected air being forced into my leather jacket through the closed zipper vents. On a motorcycle, you create your own wind chill factors. On a motorcycle going 70 MPH, well, you catch my drift.

Taking the exit for North River Road, I headed toward Wilmington, which is situated on a stretch of Illinois Highway 53 that is also known to be a portion of historic U.S. Route 66. But rather than following the Mother Road, which can occupy me for hours, if not days or weeks, I turned left onto Illinois Highway 102. Once out of Wilmington, 102 gets interesting, with a few nice, sweeping curves and a couple of forested stretches, one of which was the first place I found temperatures were still in the 30’s.

23465904081_aef582a78e_oNow I should point out that I ride a fairly well-protected bike. My Victory Vision, affectionately referred to as Miss Scarlett, pretty much falls into the “full dresser” category. She is fully faired and features, among other accouterments, heated hand grips and dual zone heated seats. So I was not nearly as chilled as I might have been on a less protected machine. But I gotta’ tell you, I was cold.

The entrance into the main portion of Kankakee River State Park is on this road, but there are several other entrances as well, on both side of the river. Some are campground entrances. Others lead to parking lots for fishing and/or hunting areas. Indeed, while I was walking on the more family-oriented portion of the park, I would occasionally hear gunfire erupting from the just across the river.

23439802522_7a169dab83_oIt’s not like it was any warmer at the park than it had been on my way there, but at the average human walking pace of 3 to 4 miles per hour, I was adding no wind chill. With that as my advantage, I spent some time walking along one of the trails, allowing myself to warm up a bit as I took in nature’s beauty all around me. There were other people there, though not many. I don’t consider myself a very good “alone” person, but I do enjoy coming to places like this from time to time, by myself, just to recalibrate my mind a little. In all candor, I would rather have a friend along ten times out of ten, but that’s not always feasible, so why not take advantage of the solitude every once in a while?

22920083404_15b6aefd0b_oThe biker in me prefers not to take the same road out as I took in. Just as Illinois 102 provides a pleasant riding experience along the north banks of the Kankakee, so too does Illinois 113 provide some fun for the ride back along the south banks, leading to the community of Braidwood. There are some nice sweepers on that road, too – and there is nothing quite like the sound of putting a big, honking V-twin motorcycle through the paces on a road like that – but the hunting areas are all on that side of the river, too. The gunfire from those parts, just across the river from me, had been somewhat regular. And I was wearing black.

23252603240_57f9f9900c_oBut my biker side won out and I did cross the river to make my westerly run that afternoon. Where 113 intersects 53 in Braidwood, there is this cool little drive in called the Polk-A-Dot. This is a Route 66 original and I can give testimony that they have good ice cream and also offer a pretty decent little bacon double cheeseburger. I love stopping there, but I did not stop this time, because the sun was already getting ominously low in the sky. So I skedaddled back up the Mother Road and out to I-55 for my quick run home.

By the time I got home, I felt a bit chilled, but I regret nothing. I had gone for a nice little ride in December. I got to visit another favorite haunt of mine before my riding season closes for real. I captured a few good photos, which I sent to a certain friend in order to tempt her to do more rides with me next year. I ran my bike, I cleared my mind, I topped off my tank… I am content.

Until next time…