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About Utah: 30 years later, Caputo still 'thrilled to death to be a deli guy'

SALT LAKE CITY — To drill down to the secret of Tony Caputo’s success as a food purveyor extraordinaire, go back more than 30 years to a time when he was working for his old high school friend Sam Granato at Granato’s importing business.

Tony was in his early 30s, raising two young sons, Matt and Peter, with his wife, Mary, while slicing salami and working the deli counter at Granato’s.

One day he had an epiphany.

“I was about two years into the job, and it just dawned on me that I loved what I was doing,” he recalls. “I thought I had higher aspirations, that I needed to do something else, be somebody else, but I realized that wasn’t true. From then on, I wasn’t looking to be CEO of Xerox anymore. I was thrilled to death to be a deli guy.”

Eleven years later, after Granato laid him off in 1996, there was no hesitation about what to do next.

He started his own deli.

With backing from two silent partners, Dr. Dominic Albo and Chris Hase, Caputo’s Market & Deli opened on the corner of 300 West and 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City in 1997.

In the 20 years since, Caputo’s has taken its place among the city’s most popular and celebrated food places, while its namesake has become, if not a legend, at least legendary, as demonstrated last month when the Utah Restaurant Association honored Tony Caputo with its prestigious lifetime achievement award.

People still can’t get over the fact that he opened a deli across the street from Pioneer Park — home to the homeless, haven for drug dealers, easily the city’s least desirable neighbor — and turned it into such a showcase that in 2009 the National Association for Specialty Food Trade organization named Caputo’s as Outstanding Specialty Food Retailer for the entire country.

“We never thought of going anywhere else,” says Tony. “We liked downtown; we liked this part of downtown. You go to big cities, go to the Italian section, they’re always in crummy neighborhoods.”

* * *

Tony Caputo comes by his godfather mannerisms and Robert De Niro-like grin honestly. His grandfather, Rosario Caputo, immigrated to Utah from Italy in the early 1900s — “back when if you had a chicken you were wealthy” — to work in the coal mines in Carbon County.

After a few years of that, he moved to Salt Lake City and started a grocery store on the west side in Rose Park called Ross Caputo Grocery.

The store was on the ground floor; the Caputo family, including Tony’s father, Nick, lived upstairs.

Nick Caputo paid his way through college at Utah State carrying a football, then got a coaching/teaching job at Notre Dame Junior High in Carbon County, which is where Tony was born. The family later moved back to Rose Park when Nick got a coaching job at Highland High School, and finally to the Cottonwood area when Tony was a teenager.

The fact that food and Italy run through Tony’s veins permeates his establishment. It might be gourmet, but it’s not quiet — “loud is how the Italians operate,” says Tony — nor is it meek. More than one person who has wandered over from Pioneer Park and forgotten his manners can attest that Tony Caputo don’t take no guff.

Then there’s the Old World appreciation for quality.

“We buy the very best we can find — and then we worry about how much it costs,” he says.

Completing the picture is family. The only reason he’s amounted to anything at all, Tony insists, is because of his wife, Mary, “who made me a decent human being,” and he lays huge praise on his son, Matt, and Matt’s wife, Yelena, for steering the deli to new heights, including adding three more locations (at the University of Utah, 15th and 15th and Holladay), offering all sorts of cooking classes, and greatly expanding the specialty food business, particularly in cheese and chocolate.

Tony chuckles when he thinks back to the day Matt and Yelena told him they wanted to add a curved glass display case in the downtown store to show off the chocolate.

“I told them, ‘We won’t sell enough chocolate in my lifetime to pay for that round case.’ Three months later, we’d sold enough to pay it off.”

His baby is in such good hands that he quietly retired two years ago, handing over the day-to-day reins to Matt and Yelena, leaving Tony free to do as he pleases, which means he still comes to the deli pretty much every day, “to BS with people and pick up the parking lot.”

The only reason he went to the Utah Restaurant Association’s banquet last month is because he thought Matt was going to get an award. He was just sitting there minding his own business when they called him up to receive his lifetime achievement award.

“Totally took me by surprise,” he says. “I’m just a guy who slices salami for a living.”