Wonder where to get fish heads for that seafood gumbo you want to tackle or fresh-made sausage for your gravy? Search no further. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Market in Elmwood Park has them aplenty and many more interesting and appetizing foods and ingredients.
On a recent trip to the old Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side—Montclare—and suburban Elmwood Park—Nancy Bishop, our publisher, home girl and consummate foodie, and I could hardly tear ourselves away from the aisles of produce, meats and pasta. What began as a quick stop among many that day turned into heart-racing excitement.
You’ve not lived until you feast your eyes on the rows and rows of exquisitely placed vegetables and fruits. I had to work hard to close my mouth and stop saying wow. From an entire aisle of peppers to potatoes of every kind to apples, rapini and squash, each section was more beautiful than the last. So gorgeous that I feared a Caputo’s staffer would haul me and my cameras out of the store for invasion of produce privacy.
We made our way to the sausage, cured meat and imported cheese counters. Looking for Barese sausage, a finger-thin sausage made with lamb, pork or both, plus Romano cheese and parsley? You’ll find it here. Turning the corner we landed at the edge of an entire aisle of pasta. I thought I knew every type of dried pasta that ever existed. Apparently not as the varieties of shapes, sizes and brands were endless.
If cooking isn’t your preference, you can find many family-size prepared entrées from Greek-style chicken to lasagna to pastas with all sorts of sauces. And the pizzas – oh my! Perfect for large groups too!
Visually Caputo’s is simply amazing, and we suspect that on weekends or during holidays this location is chaotic despite the utterly charming Italian opera coming from the speakers. Who wouldn’t want to shop with Il Divo serenading us?
As we hurried past the fresh pastry and dessert cases, ogling the cannoli, we both agreed we had to leave this glorious place so we could continue our tour of other Italian-inspired specialty shops.
Next on our journey was Gambino’s Fresh Market and what I affectionately named Caputo’s light! While it certainly has much of the same inventory, it’s not the same over-the-top shopping experience. But it’s easy-in and easy-out for those occasions when you don’t have much time. And the quality and variety of meats, sausage and cheeses is good enough for most shopping trips. Gambino’s also has a catering menu that offers pan pizza, baked mostaccioli and fresh cannoli or cannoli chip and dip.
Harlem Avenue drew us next to Pasta Fresh for a delightful lunch of fresh-made pasta with the featured daily sauces. I enjoyed simple spaghetti with marinara while Nancy feasted on eggplant Parmesan and an espresso. This charming storefront filled with a sprinkling of Italian canned goods, cookies, olive oils and coffees expands to a industrial-size production area where each day the Pasta Fresh team cranks out varieties of fresh pasta for area restaurants and grocers.
In neat and tidy Riviera Foods, our next stop, Italian-speaking staff greeted us warmly. This is the ultimate shop for people who like to cook and entertain simply. A well-stocked meat counter showcased beautifully displayed sausages while the aisles were filled with oversized cans of imported pasta sauces, tomatoes, beans and jardinière.
Riviera Foods also offers an impressive selection of fresh frozen ravioli, tortellini and gnocchi stuffed with cheese, spinach, meats and pumpkin. After you’ve chosen your pasta and sauce, the question becomes, what to serve it in? Pick up a set of reasonably priced Italian-made serving platters and bowls for a touch of authenticity. They also carry a nice array of pasta machines and espresso makers.
It was only fitting that we end our journey at Reuter’s Bakery, a neighborhood favorite since 1927. This is a special place for Nancy as she fondly recollected trips to the bakery with her mother years ago from their home six blocks east on Rutherford Avenue.
“Sometimes Mom would send me to Reuter’s with her list: a small loaf of white bread sliced, six dinner rolls and a pound of butter cookies (for my father’s sweet tooth). If my friend Joanie was with me, we would eat the crusts from the bread and sample the cookies on the way home.”
Loaded with all sorts of decorated cookies, cakes and pastries for Valentine’s Day, Reuter’s tossed my willpower right out the window. Fortunately we visited on a weekday, but we hear the lines on weekend mornings are long as people wait to enjoy freshly made doughnuts, breads and coffee cakes.
After our daylong visit to these delightful markets, we invite city dwellers to carve out some time, and head northwest to experience these gems. Be sure to bring along a cooler so you can stock up on some goodies. And let us know if you have a favorite Italian market or store in your area. Keep your eye on Third Coast Review as we explore other neighborhoods famous for ethnic specialties. And do send us your ideas for neighborhoods to explore.
Photos by Cynthia Kallile.