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…

Let Me Tell You Something About Joe

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that.

image1This guy I used to know from Blue Island passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on October 30. His name was Joe Mangione and he was a close friend of my older cousins in town, whom I idolized when I was growing up. He was in the Army during the Vietnam era, as were a couple of my cousins. He also rode motorcycles, as did my cousins – they were the ones who got me hooked before I even started grade school. Our knowledge of each other would have been limited to that – seeing each other at my uncle’s house in the 1960’s and early ’70’s, and perhaps at a few of my cousins’ parties thereafter – except that Joe and I had the pleasure of working together for a short period of time.image2

It was the summer of 1978 and I was 17. That in and of itself was magical, but I was too young to realize it at the time. My cousin/godfather Frank had bought a small gas/service station on the east side of Blue Island and he brought me on to pump gas and do some light mechanical work, like fixing flats and changing oil. I got to move cars around, too. Joe was a full-time mechanic there. Just being a part of this scene was cool for a young kid like me. Besides learning my way around the engine compartments and undersides of cars, I got to meet interesting people, learn crude jokes, run errands around town (I loved driving) and, the east side of Blue Island being what it was at the time, learn how to carry myself like a young Italian American, which at the time had become a very cool thing to be.

This was where I got to know Joe, and vice versa. Joe was not taller than me, but he was about twelve years older than me, so I looked up to him. As far as I was concerned, Joe had been around and he was cool. He had served in the Army, although he didn’t talk about it a lot. He knew how to work on cars. He had a modified Kawasaki KZ1000 with a Windjammer fairing and Pioneer Super Tuner stereo. He had a steady girlfriend. Joe also had poise, a genuine smile, a calm demeanor and a warm, friendly tone of voice. And he was very good at doing the young Italian American thing.

image4I had none of the above. But between Joe, Frank, my other cousins and a handful of other east side regulars who frequented the station, I had my role models – at least for one magical summer.

We worked hard, but we had our fun, too. Like the time Frank had a car up on one of the lifts and had been working underneath it with a cutting torch, while wearing a brand new pair of work shoes with perforated tops, for better ventilation. Joe and another mechanic named Al, who only worked on Saturdays, were looking on as Frank did his masterful work. Sparks were flying everywhere from beneath the vehicle and as luck would have it, one such spark – apparently a really hot one – found its way into one of the vent holes atop Frank’s new shoes.

I was working in the next bay over when I heard a loud “AAAAaaaiii!” coming from beneath the car on the other lift. Pausing from whatever job I had been doing at the time, I turned to see Joe and Al clapping their hands in unison and beating time with their feet as poor Frank hopped about on one foot while simultaneously trying to hand off the still-lit cutting torch, so that he could then remove the one shoe into which that metal spark had flown – and was still smoldering. I may have learned some new English and Italian swear words that day.

FranksYes, that was pretty good, but let me tell you my favorite Joe story. If this doesn’t illustrate how cool Joe could remain under pressure, I don’t know what would. We had been bleeding the brakes – a necessary step to remove any air bubbles that may otherwise remain in the lines following a brake job – on an early ’70’s Chevy Chevelle. It’s a simple enough operation. I went up with the car on the lift, while Joe tended to the brake lines. He would tell me to pump the brakes or depress and hold the brake pedal, as he opened and closed each line accordingly. Once the job was done, the car would be lowered and started, at which point the brake pedal would need to be depressed and pumped up one more time, as the power steering pump restored brake pressure. Simple, right?

So after the brakes had been bled, Joe lowered the lift and once the car was back on the ground, I got out and headed back outside to whatever job I had been working on before. After a moment, Joe got into the car and went to start her up. I can still remember the sweet sound of that Chevy’s V8 engine cranking over, followed suddenly by a momentary roar of exhaust and the scream of peeling rubber. Then utter silence. I spun around to see the back of that Chevy, now a good two feet forward from where it had been, and Joe, still in the driver’s seat, with his left hand still holding the steering wheel and his right on the gear shift lever, which was now up in the “Park” position. I walked back in to see what had happened. The front of the Chevy had stopped less than an inch away from the red metal cabinets and the cinder block wall immediately behind them. In the space of maybe one full second, Joe and the Chevelle had come that close to going right through the shop’s back wall.

After another second or two, Joe released his death grip from the steering wheel and shift lever, eased himself out of the car and just looked at me. I could only think of one thing to say.

“What happened?”

“The car was in gear. The indicator said neutral, but it was in drive. I’m feathering the gas pedal to get her started, but as soon as the engine caught, that bitch was leaving town.”

“But the car won’t start in gear.” Joe just looked at me, apparently weighing my statement against the reality of what had just happened.

“The safety kill switch must be bad, too.” He continued, “I went to hit the brakes and the pedal went right to the floor. There was no time to pump it back up, so I grabbed the gear shift and threw it into ‘Park’. That must have killed the engine.”

I may be paraphrasing here, so forgive me. It’s been over thirty years. But still, pretty quick thinking in the space of a second, don’t you think?

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I just looked from Joe to the car, to the wall, to the car, and back to Joe. Then I thought of the sight of Joe sitting there in the driver’s seat, rigid, and began laughing uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop.

“Not funny, Mike,” was all he offered. Joe never once raised his voice over the ordeal. In fact he was smiling at me the whole time, probably from relief that he had not created a new rear entrance to the garage. Such was the demeanor of Joe Mangione.

That summer had been a magical time for me, and Joe was a part of that magic. I saw him less and less in the years that followed, especially after I left Blue Island myself. But I never forgot the times that we shared and the few times that Joe and I did see each other over the years, we always smiled.

So you see, it’s not like Joe and I were long-lost brothers or really close friends. Nonetheless when I heard the news last week, it hit kind of hard. Maybe because I had fallen into that all too familiar trap of believing I would always run into him again, sooner or later. Maybe because a number of people who I love would surely be struck by this loss. Maybe because another part my distant past had just faded from view. Probably some combination of the above. But as the saying goes, it is what it is.

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that. But I am damned glad that our paths crossed to the extent that they did. I am a better person for it. Thanks, Joe.image3