308 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City ; 801-519-5754
One of Salt Lake's premier food destinations, featuring Italian, southern French and Mediterranean delicacies.
Cuisine: Italian, Deli
Hours: M-S, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Su, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Liquor: Beer & Wine
Corkage: $ 10
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Muffuletta, meatball sandwich.
September 6, 2006
Caputo's, Carlucci's remain oases of artisan Italian food
By Mary Brown Malouf
I ordered much more than I needed for lunch for two, just because there are so many good options on Caputo's Deli's brown paper menu. But the line wasn't long behind me, so the man taking orders was patient with my indecision.
Because we're nearing the end of tomato season, it was hard to pass up the caprese flavor combination — as a salad ($7.45) or as a sandwich ($6.45). I've eaten it before and could clearly remember the red slices, so sweet they seem like the fruit they actually are, the milky-fresh mozzarella and the magic melding of juicy tomato and near custard-like cheese, offset by slightly bitter greens and chewy, yeasty bread.
But in the end, I ordered three half-sandwich and salad combinations ($7.10 each). Salads are mixed greens with tomato, peperoncini and balsamic vinaigrette. One sandwich featured slices of smoky, roasted red peppers on focaccia with arugula and Manchego cheese; when I took a bite, the slippery pieces of pepper slid out of the bread like oiled Tiddlywinks. A muffuleta, the sandwich inherited from Italian New Orleans, was piled with mortadella, salame, cheese and that condiment peculiar to the muffuleta, olive salad. The sandwich wasn't much like the original from N.O.'s Central Grocery, but it was a gloriously rich and complicated mouthful of tastes and textures. Finally, to round out my messy sandwich smorgasbord, the meatball sandwich, a family favorite, was made with warm meatballs and tart marinara squishing out of the crusty roll despite all attempts to hold the thing with a semblance of grace.
If you're not going to eat your lunch there, in the expanded dining room or at a table under a sidewalk umbrella, you have to be ready to run, because Caputo's sandwiches wait for no one. Besides the unstable peppers and the marinara overflow, there are other hazards. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil, not American mayonnaise and mustard, are the standard condiments on most Caputo sandwiches and that means if you wait to eat them, you end up with the dreaded "soggy bread syndrome."
There's no table service in any case at Caputo's; the kitchen prepares your order while you wait. (And watch, if you like. Much of the kitchen is open.) So I waited at the granite sandwich bar facing Pioneer Park until they called my name and I picked up my buffet in a box.
It wasn't until I put it in the car that I noticed the box was from Bernardi's, a company outside Chicago that makes frozen Italian food for restaurants, and had once held pre-cooked Italian meatballs. I drove home in a state of slight shock. It was like finding an Ikea label in an antique shop.
Caputo's is Salt Lake City's refuge from the realities of encroaching agribusiness, a defiantly successful monument to the glories of regional food, family businesses and hands-on production and management.
Keeping an open mind, we read the ingredients as we ate the meatball sandwich. They sounded OK — beef, pork, ricotta, bread crumbs, romano cheese, garlic, dehydrated eggs and spices. Yes, dextrose, transfat and caramel coloring are also included. Sure enough, it was toothsome to the last dribble of sauce, but I was torn. I called Caputo's and asked for Tony Caputo, who owns Caputo's and now runs the market and deli with his son, and I brought up the box of meatballs.
"Yeah, aren't they great?" was his response. "Our meatball sandwich was named one of the top 10 sandwiches in America by Unlimited magazine." We went on to discuss the high quality of food in Caputo's Market, located in the same refurbished Firestone building as the deli.
When Caputo started the original market and sandwich shop in 1997, he says, he only dared to offer 2-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, because of its steep price. "When my son started working with me, he insisted we carry only the best. Now we sell 5-year-old cheese, at $29.95 a pound."
There's a big truffle display next to the cheese case and Caputo's son is in Italy, staying with the Urbani family, famous for their truffles. Tony Caputo has expanded the palate of Salt Lake, challenging it with Urbani truffles, 40 kinds of balsamic vinegar, Spanish Marcona almonds, 135 types of pasta including Bertagni imported pasta (first made in 1892), speck prosciutto ($20.95 a pound) from Alto Adige, varietal chocolates, Sardinian carta da musica — music bread — and other foods seldom seen even in the finest restaurant's pantries.
Servers in the deli and market are friendly and most are extremely knowledgeable about the products as well.
Yet Caputo is capricious. For example, in a seemingly self-destructive move, Caputo leases space to Carlucci's, a pocket-sized bakery-cafe right in between Caputo's deli and market. It's not much more than a bakery case and some tables, but it's become a regular morning stop for a lot of downtowners who appreciate the Cafe Ibis coffee as well as the fresh-baked scones and croissants. (Obviously Carlucci's embrace is broader than just Italy's boot.)
Carlucci's Bakery owner, Theresa Roper, was a pastry chef at Tuscany and though her business focuses on beautiful layer cakes (10-inch, $23.50; 6-inch, $15.50), tarts, cookies and Italian-style breads like ciabatta, focaccia and pagnotta (prices average about $3.50 a loaf), she also sells excellent sandwiches and does a brisk lunch business. Thin-sliced rare roast beef ($6.50) is accented with horseradish aioli and sweet red onion slices. White meat of chicken salad ($6.50) is given crunch with cashews on a buttery croissant. My favorite, garlicky goat cheese ($5.50) is juiced up with dead-ripe red tomatoes, slightly oven-roasted, and greens. Sandwiches come with a serving of pasta salad—rotini with black olives in balsamic vinaigrette.
Breakfast pastries and a limited menu of hot breakfasts such as french toast with apple butter and strawberry marmalade ($5.95) or eggs with bacon, ham or sausage ($6.95). The kitchen has revived that fusty '60s favorite, the quiche.
In Caputo's opinion, the proximity of the two businesses is an advantage. "It just creates more of a reason to come down here," he says, referring to the corner of 300 South and 300 West. "When one of us is busy, the other usually is, too."
It's all good, but I have to confess I was still struggling with those frozen meatballs.
So where do I draw the line? I am pre-disposed by training and experience to prefer fresh, artisanal handmade foodstuffs to mass-produced, frozen food. But I can't argue with my mouth; when it comes to food, taste trumps sense. Tony's meatball sandwich is good. His influence on Salt Lake cuisine is even better.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.