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…

The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois

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Yesterday my son and I buried our fig trees for the winter. Well, we buried one and removed another that had been struggling for two years now. Most people look at me funny when I talk about burying trees. Some people look at me funny when I talk about growing figs where I live, because they don’t believe one can grow figs in this latitude. I can state from experience that yes, you certainly can grow fig up here, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

When I was growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Blue Island, many of the “old Italians” kept fig trees. My father had kept three or four going at any given time. My grandfather across the street had a couple. My uncle “below the hill” (Blue Island’s east side, which was predominantly Italian at the time) had some, as did some cousins and assorted paesani. As you might imagine, fresh figs were abundant among my extended family during the growing season.

Wait. Can you imagine? Do you know what a fresh fig looks like? Perhaps I’d better back up a little.

Another maleFigs are a tree/shrub fruit that grow throughout the tropics, Asia and the Mediterranean. They have been around for a while. Indeed, fig trees are mentioned numerous times in both testaments of the Bible. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you know that after having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity. The gospels of mark and Matthew include accounts of Jesus cursing a barren fig tree, which proceeds to wither and die.

FemaleFigs themselves (i.e. the fruits) are considered aphrodisiacs and their unique shape and characteristics are representative of both the male and female sex organs. Without getting too graphic here, the whole fruit is thought to resemble a man’s family jewels, while the cross section bears a resemblance to the female… um.. that is… oh, my. Well, anyway…

Presumably because of their thin bark and high water content, fig trees were not designed to withstand our harsh Midwest winters. I have no idea who first had the idea to preserve fig trees by burying them during the winter months, but the practice clearly works. As I said earlier, the process isn’t easy. It isn’t even particularly fun. And the larger the trees grow, the more difficult the process becomes, until finally it becomes impossible, at which point the tree remains standing during the winter months – and dies.

burialSo how does one bury a fig tree? I’m glad you asked. In mid-to-late autumn, after all the leaves have dropped and there is little to no chance of another warm-up before winter arrives, you prepare the tree for burial by pruning and bundling the branches into a narrow, manageable package. Then you dig a trench from the base of the tree outward. The length of this trench must be equal to or slightly greater than the height of your tree. I should also mention that each year (this is an annual process), the trench will be dug in the same direction.

The idea is to bend/pivot the fig tree at the roots level, beneath the soil surface. Mind you, the tree will not want to lie down. It will help to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and gently rock the tree back and forth until it is willing to lie down for a winter nap. I should also point out that in the spring, this same tree that resisted laying down will also not want to stand back up. Such is the stubborn nature of a fig tree.

buriedOnce the tree has been convinced to lie down in the trench you’ve dug, you must cover the trench with boards, corrugated metal, etc., forming a sort of protective tomb for the tree. Then you pile dirt on top of the covering, closing off air flow and providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements of winter. In order to let moisture escape, my father would fashion a breather vent from an old section of downspout and some window screen material. Worked like a charm, so I began using them, too.

The first time I tried this process, I failed. My father had given me a shoot from one of his mature trees and advised me to take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered and see what happens. The shoot took – under the right circumstances, fig trees are very prolific (must be all that sexuality with which they are associated) – but when it came time for winter burial, either the tree had not yet been established enough to withstand the process or my methodology was somehow off. In any case, the little tree died. I felt terrible.

The following summer, my dad handed me another shoot, its base wrapped in a ball of newspaper containing a quantity of the tree’s native soil. “Try again.”

“But Pop…”

“Try. See what happens.”

I’ll tell you what happened. I failed again. The shoot threw roots and sprouted a few new leaves, but did not survive winter burial. By this time I had become quite willing to give up and leave the fig tree cultivation to people who knew what they were doing.

My dad had other ideas. The following summer, he once again handed me another shoot, nicely wrapped in a ball of dirt surrounded by newspaper. “Try again.”

I could not refuse. I took the shoot home, stuck it in a patch of cultivated soil, kept it watered, watched it take root, etc. Then, when the last leaves had fallen, I dug a tiny trench, for a tiny tree, laid the little guy down, as I had been instructed, covered the trench with a length of plywood, covered the plywood with an ample amount of dirt, then crossed my fingers and waited until spring.

At the appropriate time, I unearthed the entombed little tree, my third attempt at a craft that my dad had made to look so easy. Weeks went by… nothing. Still I waited. More weeks went by. Then one morning I walked past my kitchen window and glanced out toward this stick standing up in the middle of my garden… and saw something green. Green!

I ran outside to confirm it. Yes, that speck of green was indeed the start of new leaf growth! Then I ran back inside and called my father just as quickly as my shaking fingers could dial.

“Pop!”

“Hey.”

“Pop! Guess what! The little sonofabitch is alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My fig tree!! It’s alive! I did it!”

“See? I told you…”

Thus began my love affair with the common fig tree. A month or so later, my father proved his faith in my ability by presenting me with yet another shoot from one of his trees.

“Here,” he commanded and he thrust the carefully wrapped bundle into my reluctant hands. “Take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered…”

early figsBy then I knew the drill. But even more importantly, by then I knew it could be done! A year later I had two thriving trees. At first they yielded only a handful of undersized (but delicious) fruit, but a few years later, I was collecting enough full-sized figs to warrant giving some away. I was happy. My father was proud. Life was good.

In the few years leading up to my father’s death in 2011, I began taking over the burial and resurrection of his fig trees, which were much more mature than my own. During those years, two wonderful things happened. First, my dad was able to watch and counsel me on the finer points of this craft. But at the same time, my son was able to begin learning, first by watching us and then by actively assisting my father and me.

Today, at the age of 22, my son knows as much about this process as I did when I was 20 years older than him. More often than not, we work the trees together. I believe my father would have been proud. I know I am.

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Close Encounters of the Thanksgiving Kind

roast-turkey-1566802-639x479   My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.

how-to-make-italian-food-2-1566265-1280x960The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.

On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”

olivesWhen I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.Turkey

The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.

As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”

We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”

Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.

I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.

I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.

So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.

One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.

To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!