“I am the only one who makes [the mozzarella] now, but my father, when he was working, HE was the only one making it. Even now, when he’s here, he is the one who makes it.” -Frank Caputo
Caputo’s Fine Foods in Carroll Gardens has been a mecca for lovers of housemade fresh mozzarella, pastas, and all kinds of Italian specialties for decades. Frank Caputo’s father opened the shop in 1973, after immigrating to the States from Puglia and struggling to find a job that he actually liked. After brief forays into banking and the grocery store industry with his brother, Frank returned to Court Street ten years ago to take over the family business.
While everything in the shop is of the highest quality, Caputo’s fresh mozzarella stands out as a neighborhood treasure, coveted and whispered feverishly about by those in-the-know. Tricia Brown, a Caputo’s regular and a devotee of Frank’s fresh mozz, stopped by the shop to learn more about the family biz.
Tricia: I know Caputo’s has a long history of selling Italian cheeses, pastas and meats here in Brooklyn. How and where did it all start?
My parents opened this store in 1973. They came over from Puglia, Italy. My father had a shop in Italy that he opened as soon as he and my mother got married. Then they decided to come to the States because my father’s family were all in the States. A year after my parents came here, this building was for sale. My father had tried a number of jobs that he didn’t like, so this shop was him giving the States one more try. It worked out!
How was the store that your parents opened nearly forty years ago different from today’s Caputo’s?
They started out by selling mostly ricotta, Parmesan, Pecorino, Mozzerella, two kinds of Provolone-domestic and imported, a couple olives, and a couple cans of tomatoes and that’s it. They had no pasta, no cold cuts, and only a few canned items. That’s all the store sold. The neighborhood then was mostly Italian, with some Irish.
So when did the shop expand to carry pasta, meats, coffee and everything else that you’ve got on the shelves now?
They started selling the bread, then the cold cuts and, a little at a time, we started to make pasta. We’ve been making pasta almost thirty years now.
You clearly grew up in this business. Did you always know that you would end up running the store?
My brother and I actually left the business at one point and opened a supermarket after college and then came back. In the grocery business, we were working seven days, fifteen hour days and after a bit of that, we decided it wasn’t for us. I wasn’t married then and that was a good thing because I wouldn’t have had the time. We decided to come back to the family business. My brother and I worked with my parents for a number of years and I took over 10 years ago. My brother left 5 years ago, after my mom passed away. She had kept him here but he wanted to leave New York for the longest time. He moved to Uruguay, where his girlfriend is from. I’ve been running the store since then.
You have quite a selection of pasta! How has that changed over the years?
The ravioli fillings have changed. Some are new, some are old, some I’ve stopped making. We’ve always made the stuffed gnocchi. We used to make flavored fresh pasta like tomato, lemon pepper — we’ve stopped making that. We now do plain, tri-color, spinach, squid ink, truffle, but the other flavors just didn’t move off the shelf. We used to have 15-20 flavored pastas and we sold a lot, but not anymore. If something sat on the shelf two or three weeks, then I discontinued it. I stop making it.
Have you made any other changes to the store or what you offer as the neighborhood has changed?
We do more cooked food now. The soups sell really well except in the summertime, when we stop making them. The sauces have always sold really well so we’ve expanded them. Originally we only had marinara and meat sauce but we have added Bolognese, Vodka, pestos, and more.
The cheeses that you make in house are such a big draw. Tell me more about what types you make. I’m especially curious to know the history of the basket cheese you make.
The aged basket cheese is fairly new but we’ve always made the fresh basket cheese. We made it every day for a while, but now we only make the fresh cheese on holidays. The aged cheese came about because my younger son had reminded me that I hadn’t made it for awhile so I made a batch and then decided to age it to make it last longer. It worked out and now we carry that. Thanks to him, I’ve added that cheese to what we make.
I often see your kids around the store, helping out. Would you like to see the store span three generations of Caputos?
Yes, they help out on weekends because they are in school during the week. They are teenagers now. I tell them what my parents told me, which is that they have to graduate from college and then we’ll talk, but not until they get an education. They can help out in the store now, yes, but they can’t expect to be involved in the business until they get out of college. I did the same thing. I went to college and after that I actually got a job at Chase. Two weeks before I was going to stop, I went to them and told them that I couldn’t do it. They asked if I got more money offered somewhere else and I told them that I’ve decided to go into the family business instead. What do they say to that? I don’t ever regret my decision. Nobody forced me into it. It’s my passion.
What is your favorite thing about coming to the store every day?
I love eating and talking about food and cooking. I really enjoy making mozzerella and pastas.
Are you the creator of the famous Caputo’s mozzerella?
I am the only one who makes it now, but my father, when he was working, HE was the only one making it. Even now, when he’s here, he is the one who makes it. I’m very picky about the curd that I use to make it. I get it from a smaller upstate producer and its more expensive, but there is no comparison in quality. My distributor won’t even tell me which farm he gets it from. The way we make mozzarella is not the way most places make it. There is more waste in our process but it’s a lot creamier and its always softer. According to the health department, we only have three hours to sell the fresh mozzerella. Within two hours, we have to refrigerate it. So, we make it at least every couple of hours and we keep a log of when each batch is made to keep track.
Wow! That’s labor intensive! Please tell me you end up using the cheese that doesn’t sell in two hours. I’d hate to think that all that deliciousness goes to waste!
We have to do it that way because when the health department comes in, we have to be able to show them a log of what was made when. You can refrigerate it but it changes the texture. I chill it when I’m going to be heating it, like in making pizza or lasagne. I prefer it that way for pizzas because it dries the cheese out. But when you have it fresh, you want it moist. We don’t consider the refrigerated cheese to be fresh mozzerella anymore. We do use the refrigerated cheese in raviolis but we don’t sell the cheese once its chilled.
I am very picky and can be a pain in the ass about quality but I’m very loyal to my distributors when they deliver me good quality. My supplier of coffee had been a Brooklyn roaster but they moved to Long Island because it became too expensive.
What do you do when you aren’t at the store?
I’m renovating my house right now so we are living with my in-laws. Once I’m done and I’m back in my home, I’ll be cooking again. I love to cook. My wife is always surprised that on my day off, I like to cook. When I do it at the store it’s work, but when I cook at home, it’s very relaxing. My wife can’t figure out why I’m so picky about food. I don’t know, but I was born in the business and I’m just very picky about what I eat. When I go to Italian parties and restaurants, I often won’t eat the prosciutto because the quality isn’t good. Its not even real prosciutto. They put a lot of nitrates in domestic prosciutto so I won’t eat it and we don’t sell those kinds. Most of the time I don’t usually order pasta when I’m out because I don’t like it. I’m very picky about the quality of my pasta too.
So, where do like to eat when you want a break from cooking? Anywhere in Carroll Gardens?
I don’t usually go out to eat Italian food since that’s what I make all day long. Buttermilk Channel is very good. Restaurant Saul, on Smith Street, is really nice.
So you primarily go to restaurants that are outside your culinary expertise?
I do sometimes eat Italian out. If I’m going to, I go to Marco Polo on Court Street. But I usually cook Italian at home, so I like a change. Most of the time, I’m fixing the house or keeping an eye on the contractors so there’s no time. It’s in the Dyker Heights area. Hopefully by the end of the summer, I’ll be able to move in.
Sounds like a big renovation!
Well, I had to do everything. The kitchen in the new house will be bigger than my kitchen here. Some people say ‘why do you do this’ and I tell them it’s because I love to cook! I like to have a big kitchen. We are going to be expanding the kitchen here at the store too and that should be done by the end of the summer.
How do you see Caputo’s changing over the coming years?
We’re expanding the kitchen ten feet back and want to start doing catering again. We stopped doing catering about six or seven years back, although it still says that on the awning outside. I didn’t have the room for it, with making the pasta and all the machines. Once I get everything settled in the kitchen and it’s up and running, we’ll start again because people are always asking for it. Hopefully by the end of the year. The retail store and cheese production won’t change. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
You can visit Caputo’s Fine Foods and try some of their famous mozzarella at 460 Court Street in Carroll Gardens.