CARROLL GARDENS – “We mix old dough with the new dough,” James Caputo said about making Sicilian bread—a staple heritage loaf available at his store, Caputo’s Bake Shop on Court Street. “There isn’t much demand for Sicilian bread these days,” he said. “But I refuse to stop making it because it’s a source of pride for me.”
A walk down Court Street in Carroll Gardens is met by bodegas, new Hipster coffee, as well as vestiges of decades past. Two community staples bear matching names, a similar history, and tell a story of changing with the times in order to remain put.
James Caputo’s family moved to the United States from Sicily and opened the Bake Shop in 1904, at the time selling only two or three types of bread. They have expanded the range quite a bit since.
Then there is the other Caputos. Frank Caputo’s family moved to Brooklyn in 1973 and opened Caputo’s Fine Foods, modeled after a similar shop they had in Bari, Italy, six blocks from the other Caputo’s – the families are not related.
“As far as cooking, most if not all are my mother’s recipe,” Frank Caputo said of the prepared food sold in his shop. “My dad, he had the same type business back in Italy so that’s why he brought it back with him. He taught me to make the mozzarella, di cotta, and other cheeses,” Frank said.
When the shop opened, it only sold cheese and canned tomatoes, Frank says, but incorporated other products as time went by. Now, Caputo’s Fine Foods is the place to find specialty olives, imported olive oil and vinegar, Italian cold cuts, cheeses, Italian sandwiches, and more.
Amidst the old and new of the neighborhood, each Caputo’s remains a staple to the customers who shop there.
“They’re the heart and lungs of Carroll Gardens,” Christian Troia, an employee of Caputo’s Fine Foods, said of the shops. To Troia the two shops are “standing originals” that stay true to the Italian way of doing things.
That includes a customer service relationship that can feel more like a friendship. Staff members know their customers, and some customers might linger to talk about anything and everything, according to Frank. “If you talk about food, you could be here for the whole day,” he said.
Troia said there are a handful of customers who develop a deeper connection to the store and its employees. “When you’re here long enough, you become, I feel, people’s therapists,” he said.
As the neighborhood keeps changing and new customers mingle with the old, it means some changes for the shops as well. James Caputo adds various baked goods to the Bake Shop’s options when customers request items he doesn’t sell. Recently, he rolled out a new pretzel to go along with his American-style cookie and pastry offerings.
But both Caputo’s remain true to their core, Italian, identity. “Our role is just keeping the tradition alive,” James said. “We still have old-timers who come in to buy the bread and they tell me, never stop making what you’re making.”
Much like the recipe for making Sicilian bread, Caputo’s—whether a seller of heritage bread, or a vendor of Italian cheeses—creates something fresh by mixing the old and the new. James Caputo said, “We keep a little bit of the old neighborhood in the new neighborhood—that’s what we do.”