Most of us know someone like Lucy Van Pelt, the irascible, bossy, highly opinionated diva in the syndicated Peanuts comic strip. Since her debut in 1952, Lucy has been the perpetrator of two long-running gags. One involves her holding the football (ostensibly so that Charlie Brown can kick a field goal or extra point) and pulling the ball away because she doesn’t want Charlie Brown to get it dirty. The second gag parodies the lemonade stand operated by many young children under spacious skies. Instead of a lemonade stand, she operates a psychiatric booth where she offers advice and psychoanalysis for a nickel. The “advice” is often worthless though on occasion, she actually dispenses a pearl of wisdom.
Lucy Van Pelt has nothing on Tony Caputo and his friends in Salt Lake City. Every Saturday morning for years, Tony and his friends, seven sagacious septuagenarians, would meet at Tony’s eponymous deli where they’d solve all the world’s ills. To amp up excitement in their lives, they decided to share their wisdom with people in dire need. Caputo got a booth at the nearby farmers market where the seven could dispense their counsel. He put up a large banner and hung it up: “Old Coots Giving Advice – It’s Probably Bad Advice, But It’s Free.” The booth became so popular that CBS Sunday Morning featured the Solomon-like seventy-year-olds in a hilarious segment of the show.
Over the years I heard so much about Tony Caputo from my favorite food author and peerless culinary researcher Becky Mercuri that when he passed away suddenly on March 10, 2021, it felt a lot like losing a friend. I’ll let Becky take it from here: “Tony Caputo not only founded one of the best Italian delis in the United States – he was one heck of a nice guy. Anyone who was lucky enough to chat with him was the beneficiary of both his charm and his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for quality Italian food. Tony wasn’t in the deli business just to earn a living – he truly loved it – and given the opportunity, he could talk even a starving dog off a salami wagon. After he retired in 2015 and passed the torch to his son Matt.”
In her magnificent tome American Sandwich (published in 2004), Becky wrote about the one sandwich that best defines each of the fifty states. Not only does American Sandwich describe how each sandwich is constructed, Becky details the provenance of each sandwich. You might think Utah’s signature sandwich would be related to the Beehive State’s pioneer stock or maybe to mountain men, beef or buffalo. Instead, many of the ingredients in the anointed sandwich—mortadella, salami, prosciutto and provolone—are imported from Italy.
Tony Caputo himself wasn’t imported from Italy, but his grandparents were. Here’s how Caputo related it to Becky: “In 1913, Rosario and Christina Caputo emigrated from the town of Ariello in Calabria, Italy and set their sights on Salt Lake City, where Rosario found work in the coal mines. By the early 1920s, the Caputos were able to open a small grocery store, a venture that turned out to be fortuitous for later generations of the Caputo family.”
“Tony renovated the old Firestone Tire and Rubber Company building adjacent to Salt Lake City’s once-dilapidated Pioneer Park, and two years later, he purchased another building. As part of his renovation and development efforts, Tony enticed other businesses into that area which today includes a farmers market, a fish company, and a bakery.” Today Tony Caputo’s Deli is a megalithic complex, a one-stop paradise for food lovers. As we found out during our two visits, you can spend hours perusing aisles of tempting products.
Before you set out to explore the enormous complex, you’re well advised to have lunch first. First-time visitors should order the sandwich named for the deli’s founder–The Caputo. Tony gave Becky the instructions for The Caputo which includes the following on their published menu: Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, olive oil and balsamic. “He further specified a crusty 6 – 8 inch peasant bread roll, balsamic vinegar such as Antica Italia, and accompanied by Sicilian marinated olives and pepperoncini. As Becky so eloquently wrote: “It’s a tribute to the Caputo’s Italian heritage and a special treat for diners on the prowl for the best in Utah.”
27 August 2021: During our foodie forays into dining destinations across the country, we rarely dine at any one restaurant more than once during each visit. For Caputo’s we made an exception. In fact, after having visited on the Monday of our stay, we couldn’t wait to return. My Kim would probably have divorced me if I’d have taken her to Caputo’s every day of our visit, but the temptation was there. Caputo’s is quite simply the best deli I’ve visited since my youthful explorations in New England. A large part of that is The Caputo, an Italian sandwich as good or better than any Italian sandwich I’ve ever had. One of the things that makes this sandwich so special is the bread to meats to condiments ratio. Each is in perfect proportion to complement the other. No one meat, cheese or condiment dominates. All work together like an orchestra that plays flawless notes on your taste buds.
27 August 2021: There are a number of salads on Caputo’s menu, but had we visited for a month of Sundays we probably would have ordered the antipasto (mix of cured Italian meats, cheeses, mild giardiniera, olive oil & balsamic, mixed greens) every single time. It’s quite simply the very best we’ve ever had. Available as a side or large portion (a must), it’s replete with sundry sumptuousness. Unlike “composed” salads in which ingredients “are conscientiously arranged, whether in a pile or side by side, on a plate or in a bowl, with attention to complimentary flavors and colors,” this antipasto resembles a bowl of scrap ingredients thrown together. It may not win any awards for esthetic qualities, but it’ll blow you away with the high quality of every ingredient.
23 August 2021: The term “old school” describes doing something the way it used to be done, ostensibly a better way. That’s a fitting name for one of the ten sandwiches on the menu. The Old School (sausage, Genoa salami, capocollo, Cacio De Roma cheese, roasted red pepper spread, lettuce, tomato, olive oil and balsamic) is how sandwiches used to be made before the sandwich market became so homogeneous. That means high quality ingredients piled generously on bread you’d swim the Great Lake to enjoy. It’s the type of sandwich you’d make for yourself though unless you shop at Caputo’s it’s unlikely you’ll have such great ingredients stocked in your fridge.
23 August 2021: Four decades ago when I was full of piss and vinegar and cutting a wide swath across Boston area Italian restaurants, I discovered the meatball “grinder,” the colloquial way of saying meatball sandwich in Massachusetts. For forty years it’s been my quest to find one as good as those in Boston’s fabled North End. Indiana Jones had an easier time finding the Ark of the Covenant. At Caputo’s, my quest was fulfilled. Caputo’s The Meatball (meatballs, marinara sauce, parmesan and provolone cheeses) is everything that defines an outstanding meatball grinder, sub, sandwich, etc.. That means a sandwich so warm and comforting that you feel as if you’re enveloped in your grandmother’s loving arms. That means house-made meatballs, each as big as a golf ball, each covered in a perfectly seasoned sauce. That means the type of messy and sloppy that says you’ll be wearing that sauce on your face and clothing. It means being tempted to use a knife and fork even at the risk of losing your man card. This is the meatball sandwich of which dreams are made!
27 August 2021: Having lived within easy driving distance of New Orleans for eight years, we nearly took for granted that we’d always be able to find muffulettas. Maybe they wouldn’t be as transformative as those skyscraper tall sandwiches that made the Crescent City’s Central Market a pilgrimage-worthy dining destination, but surely we’d find good to very good muffulettas. Similar to my quest to find a meatball sandwich that compares to those in Boston, we’ve never been able to find a muffuletta nearly as good as those in New Orleans. As muffulettas go, Caputo’s muffuletta (Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and spicy olive salad on a ciabatta roll) is a good one. It may not be the size of a manhole cover or as tall as a multi-layer wedding cake, but in terms of flavors at least it captures the spirit of a New Orleans muffuletta.
As you approach Tony Caputo’s in its downtown dwelling, you might be intimidated by the sheer size of this megalithic complex. The second you step inside, awe and wonder will replace any intimidation you might have felt. There’s just so much to see, so many options to explore. You’ll probably dispense of any plans you may have had for the afternoon to spend your time perusing the aisles. If you don’t first enjoy one of the aforementioned sandwiches, you’re at risk of blowing your budget purchasing Italian comestibles you probably can’t find at home.
To your immediate right of the deli case in which salads are displayed in all their delicious glory, you’ll espy every chocoholic’s dream, aisles of fine chocolates, the type of which pair so well with cheese. Caputo’s offers an expansive collection of craft chocolate from around the globe, where the single unifying theme is cacao beans of respectable provenance. Small-batch chocolates from such unlikely countries as Papua New Guinea and Vietnam share space with chocolates from Utah. Not even Willy Wonka’s factory offers such chocolate decadence and temptation. Caputo’s is actually home to the largest selection of craft chocolate in the country, with more than 300 different bars to choose from. Look for Utah’s own Solstice premium chocolate bars.
I read somewhere that “Caputo’s is arguably one of the best specialty markets in the U.S.”. Yeah, that’s a turn of phrase. No one in their right mind would dispute that Caputo’s is one of the country’s best specialty markets. Shelves brimming with imported comestibles such as olive oils, vinegars, pastas, coffees and other imported Italian and Southern European specialty products, Caputo’s is the next best thing to being in Italy–the difference being that so many fabulous products from across Lo Stivale’s diverse regions are all available in one location. This specialty market is probably what an Italian chef imagines Heaven is like.
Food writers tend to overuse the term “foodgasm” (“the euphoric sensation upon eating amazingly delicious food”), a definition which should be expanded to include the euphoric sensation of contemplating how just how you’d enjoy all those magnificent meats in deli cases that surprisingly aren’t obfuscated by tongue and drool tracks. Utah’s first refrigerated deli case is undoubtedly still its very best with museum quality displays of Italian meats as thick as logs. Caputo’s salumi alone is worth a trip to the Beehive State.
When my Kim and I first visited the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company in Somerset, England, we discovered cave-aged cheese which had been stored in a cave whose constant temperature and humidity–nearly 98%–provided perfect conditions in which to mature cloth-bound cheese. I thought then and there that maybe life as a troglodyte turophile wouldn’t be too bad. That sentiment was revisited when we espied Caputo’s state-of-the-art cheese cave in which large wheels of cheese age in ideal high-humidity conditions.
Caputo’s makes its own fresh mozzarella and burrata and works with area cheesemakers to wash and age their cheeses. Many of Caputo’s cheeses have won national awards–including one the village of Cheddar might envy. Caputo’s house Cheddar is aged using bandages soaked in butter and duck fat. That Cheddar is aged for 8.5 months and has a flavor reminiscent of the English Cheddar with which we were quite acquainted. There really is a discernible difference.
Long before he retired Matt Caputo, scion of the market and deli’s legendary founder, began the process of expanding the family enterprise while ensuring food traditions remain firmly at the heart of the Caputo legacy. It’s a proud legacy that respects a supply train rooted in local farmers and producers crafting superior products that taste better than anything any corporate behemoth can. Should Matt decide to dispense advice in the tradition of his father, you’re well advised to heed that advice.
TONY CAPUTO’S MARKET & DELI
314 W. Broadway
Salt Lake City, Utah
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LATEST VISIT: 27 August 2021
1st VISIT: 23 August 2021
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Meatball Sandwich, The “Old School,” Antipasto