My father Marco recently reminded me to share my stories with my kids during cold, wintry days like the ones we’ve been experiencing now. He has a point because passing down stories and traditions is what keeps family memories alive when our loved ones die.
So, when I visited the Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market in Bloomingdale, I thought of the many times my dad took me to Caputo’s original Elmwood Park location during the Christmas season and helped prepare our Christmas Eve dinner with his family. It was a fun and nostalgic time because it brought to life some of my Italian heritage and it’s a great holiday story to share with my children.
Being from Melrose Park, we visited the original location on Harlem Avenue and Wrightwood Avenue. That location was in the heart of an Italian business district lined with boutiques, cafes, and local grocery and delis stores filled with things that you couldn’t find at the chain supermarkets. Try find live eels and fresh octopus for a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner at those stores. Forget it. The Italian shops are still there but that particular Caputo’s relocated to its current and larger store on Harlem and Grand Avenues, still in Elmwood Park. During the 1990s, the company soon grew to include suburban locations including Addison, Bloomingdale and Naperville.
When we would go to Caputo’s, we entered the store to a chilly reception but not the kind you would expect. The produce section, which was near windows and the door, is what shoppers saw first. What you saw during December is the overflowing presence of citrus fruits—grapefruit, oranges, tangerines—reminders of warm weather that will come in several months. Also, in season are fruits that can thrive a brutal winter cold: pears and apples. Those dark and enticing berries, summer season stars, are hidden in an inner aisle since they are not at their peak of perfection.
What we really wanted were Italian specialties such as the beloved torrone—hazelnuts draped in a creamy nougat and panettone, a softer, sweeter and flavorful cousin of the despised and treacly fruitcake. Panettone, which is found in many supermarkets and specialty places, is a rather tall, large, fluffy sweet yeast cake made with eggs, candied fruit peels and raisins. Some variations are covered in chocolate and can contain a marscarpone cheese cream filling. It’s a wonderful treat after a Christmas Eve meal of fish, pasta and vegetables. Try one for the holidays; it can be an interesting conversational piece to thrill the gourmands in your life.
As a child, I had spaghetti with clam sauce, fried eel and baccala—salted and dried cod that had to be reconstituted in water and served with lemon. A very healthy meal indeed, but I really wanted the panettone. Today, we do away with the eel and have fried shrimp, fried or grilled calamari, linguine with garlic and oil and tilapia served with lemon. Christmas Day was the time to feast on lasagna, meatballs and braciole—steaks filled with breadcrumbs, cheese and seasonings, baked in the oven and then simmered in tomato sauce. As I’m older, some of those foods appear on the table joined by ham or chicken and sides.
On that pleasant and savory holiday note, I want to thank Caputo’s for making my Christmas Eves fun and give season’s greetings to readers and listeners to my radio show this way: Buon Natale and Felice Anno Nuovo 2014!