A Hamburger Today

Market Tours: Caputo's Fine Foods, an Italian Institution in Carroll Gardens

[Photographs: Clara Inés Schuhmacher]

For 39 years, Caputo's Fine Foods has occupied a tiny sliver of space—just enough for wall of shelves and a butcher counter—at 460 Court Street. It shares block space with fellow Italians in the Italian-dense neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. (So Italian in fact, that this Caputo's shares a name with a bakery at 329 Court Street. They're not related though. The bakers are Napolitani.) In these almost four decades, Caputo's has become an institution. Lines for fresh mozzarella are long on weekends, and many a restaurant, like Buttermilk Channel, make a weekly trek to buy mozzarella in person.

It's so sought-after, in fact, that proprietor Frank Caputo makes twenty pounds of his famous mozzarella every two hours, every day. That's upwards of 600 pounds a week. Luckily, it doesn't take him that long. "I've been doing it over twenty five years" he laughed. "I don't even have to look any more."

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The two-hour window is part demand, part quality control. Mozzarella holds well at room temperature for about that long, after which it's best to refrigerate it. Fresh mozzarella is better than refrigerated mozzarella, though, and Frank is committed to selling you the best. "We don't want to have to refrigerate it" he explained, indicating the trays of ovaletti, bocconcini, scamorza—his mozzarella shapes—luxuriating in water. "You know, my mom would leave it out over night, but people don't do that any more. So we make it more often."

Frank inherited the business—and the recipes—from his father. "My dad had the same kind of business in Italy. He's from Puglia" he explained. "In Italy it's called a latteria. Then in '73, he opened up the business here, and started making mozzarella. Well," he paused. "Here they call it mozzarella. But it's actually fior di latte, when you make it like so, with cow milk."

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Family recipes however, are only part of what makes Caputo's great. Place is as important to the product, and Frank both acknowledges its shortcomings, and uses its strengths to his advantage. "The milk is a big difference over here," he explained. "They pasteurize the milk too. So, for example, the burrata that's popular in Puglia? I can't get the texture and flavor right, so we don't bother making it. However, we use milk from upstate, and for the fior di latte and the fresh ricotta we make, it's great." (Not to worry, though: Frank imports fresh burrata from Italy every Wednesday, if you're looking.)

The other key ingredient? Water. "Water is a big thing, too. New York City water is one the best tasting waters in the world. If I left New York and started making mozzarella somewhere else, it wouldn't be the same, because of the water." Frank laughed.

Mozzarella's not the only thing, though Frank certainly won't judge if you sneak a bocconcino before you're out the door. Enter part two of Caputo's claim to fame: pasta. Fresh pasta, rolled pasta, stuffed pasta, and dried, Caputos's has it all, and it's all homemade. Fresh cut pasta—fettucini, papardelle, sheets for lasgna—are made daily. The rest are made as needed, with special attention to the seasonal treats that fly off the shelves the fastest (these days that means pumpkin ravioli.)

Dried pasta takes up a good half of the one wall of goods. The 16 ounce packages boast every imaginable shape, in egg, whole wheat, and spinach. Rolled pasta—gnocchi—and stuffed pasta—tortellini, ravioli, agnoletti, made on a machine brought over specially from Roma—are in the freezer. Fillings vary, but you can be sure to find cheese (starring Frank's own mozzarella and ricotta), spinach, mushroom, artichoke, gorgonzola-walnut, and several kinds of meat. Hand-shred a little mozz on your homemade pasta, top it with a Caputo's-made marinara or pesto sauce, and voilà! Una buona pasta.

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To round out a proper Italian meal, Frank and co. prepare antipasti daily: grilled eggplant, artichokes mushrooms, zucchini and asparagus, as well as spicy and stuffed peppers. In the winter, there's soup, too. These are family recipes as well—but from his mamma. "My dad made the cheeses, but my mom did all the cooking" he laughed.

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Caputo's "fine foods" tagline extends beyond the things made in-house to a few choice specialty items as well. There's a great selection of olive oils and vinegars, coffee beans by the barrel, polenta, Arborio rice for risotto, San Pellegrino sodas, and little jars of Nutella decorated with the latest Italian cartoon craze. There's an extensive olive bar, a great cheese selection, and prosciutto di parma, a must. They bring in bread from a spot in New Jersey, and bake loaves—semolina, ciabatta—as needed, too. "We don't do all the baking here, I'd be here 24 hours a day!"

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The Saturday afternoon line grew long as Frank stood at the register, chatting with customers about their purchases, dolling out advice on cooking times, the right olive oil, ways to prepare different ingredients. "You know, we're very spoiled in New York City," he mused. "You can get very authentic things." Lucky for us, Caputo's is one of these things. It's Italian, and it's New York.

Take a tour in the slideshow »

Caputo's Fine Foods

460 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231 (map)
718-855-8852

About the author: Clara Inés Schuhmacher would take the local grocer's word over Lonely Planet's any day. She muses about such choices over on ¡dpm! does and on twitter.

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