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Dining out: Tony Caputo's

This is one of those moments when that "mask of authority" that I try to sustain as a restaurant critic slips a little bit. Until this week, I'd never eaten at Tony Caputo's.

It would be sort of like Deseret Morning News film critic Jeff Vice confessing that he's never seen "Star Wars." Or TV critic Scott Pierce giving "Seinfeld" a miss.

Perhaps I exaggerate a wee bit. But the fact is, Caputo's is an institution, and I'd been to many of those, but not this one.

Now that I have, I feel like an idiot for not going sooner on several counts:

The food is fantastic. It's made with the highest-quality ingredients and features little extras that turn a lunch from adequate to delightfully memorable.

The ambience is great. There's this sleek but funky urban vibe that's a little reminiscent of a really big city. But Caputo's definitely belongs to Salt Lake City as shown by the diverse clientele (from businessmen and folks with kids to college students) and the placards urging people to vote for certain candidates in the upcoming election.

The price is right. You can get an enormous, generously filled sandwich for under six bucks.

The service is speedy-quick. If you only have a few minutes, get takeout. They'll take care of you.

My husband and I had lunch at Caputo's on a recent weekday. He knew immediately what he wanted (the meatball sub), but I had a hard time deciding. The menu is straightforward — 15 sandwiches, five salads, drinks and desserts — but everything is so tempting.

I wanted the feta-and-tomato sandwich, or maybe the roasted pepper on focaccia, or maybe the prosciutto.

But in the end I went with the Italian cold-cuts sandwich, which features such "Italian favorites" as salami and capocollo, a couple of cheeses, lettuce and tomato, with balsamic vinegar and olive oil coating the inside surfaces of the delicious crusty roll that is the sandwich's foundation.

It's yummy. The meat and cheese are of the highest quality, moist and full of flavor. What really tipped the scales for me, though, is the use of vinegar and oil. In place of spreads like mayo, they just light up the entire sandwich, intensifying every flavor.

The meatball sandwich was wonderful to look at — another one of those great rolls piled with little meatballs in marinara. And to eat. The diminutive size of the meatballs means there's more sauce to jazz up each bite. The meatballs are deeply flavorful but not spicy and so tender that I wondered how they hold together. Plus, the bread never got soggy, helped along by the melted cheese under the meatballs.

With our sandwiches we got plenty of spicy pepperoncini and wonderful, bitter-salty green olives. If I'd known that ahead of time, I might have skipped the chips.

For dessert, I had to try the tiramisu, of course. The cake in Caputo's version is just a little sweeter than my ideal, but it was full of strong coffee flavor, and the mascarpone filling was fresh and delicious. We also tried a cannoli, and I shocked myself by liking it even better than the tiramisu. It's a crunchy, slightly sweet and nutty rolled pastry, filled with thick, rich Italian cream studded with pine nuts. It's just heaven. I let my husband have one bite and finished the rest myself.

So now I've been to Caputo's. If you're like me, and you've heard a lot about the place but never visited, get over there. It's worth the trip.

Salads $3-$5.25, sandwiches $5.25-$12, desserts $1.75-$3.50.

If you go. . .

Rating: *** 1/2

Where: 308 W. 300 South

Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Payment: Cash, checks, credit cards

Reservations: None

Phone: 531-8669

Stacey Kratz is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: