Tony Caputo, founder of beloved Salt Lake City market and deli, dies at 72

He helped launch Salt Lake City’s artisan food scene when he opened his market across the street from Pioneer Park.

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) Tony Caputo stands outside his deli in 2002.

Tony Caputo, the man who helped launch Salt Lake City’s artisan food scene when he opened his namesake Italian market and deli across the street from Pioneer Park, died Wednesday. He was 72.

“It was quite sudden and we are still reeling,” Caputo’s son Matt, wrote on Facebook. “...The best days of my life were spent working with him in the deli and watching how he would treat each person having lunch. It didn’t matter what color your skin was, if you were the governor, or a blue-collar worker. He made each person feel like an old friend by welcoming them with genuine kindness, respect, and hospitality.”

In 1997, after years of working for Granato’s Italian deli, Caputo ventured out on his own, opening Caputo’s Market and Deli at 314 W. 300 South.

Initially, the meaty sandwiches — filled with mortadella, salami, prosciutto and served on crusty rolls — attracted the crowds. Over time, though, customers came as much for Tony Caputo’s warm and inviting personality as the deli’s tempting menu.

During the next two decades, the deli became one of the city’s most popular eateries. The specialty shop became known for its quality selection of artisan meats and cheeses, premium chocolates, and imported oils and vinegars.

While Tony Caputo technically retired in 2015, leaving the day-to-day business to his son and daughter-in-law, he still came in every day to check in and make sure everything was running smoothly.

For the past few years, Caputo was one of the “Old Coots” who meet every Saturday morning at the Downtown Farmers Market to dispense free advice to any takers.

“We were sitting outside, bored stiff from talking to each other,” Tony Caputo, told The Washington Post back in 2018, “and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to get us a booth across the street at the farmers market, where we can give advice.’”

[View a “Trib Talk” from last year with Tony Caputo and his “Old Coot” pals.]

When Caputo’s opened west of Main, many people didn’t give the business much of a chance.

But it didn’t take long before the market expanded and attracted other food businesses to the corner, including Carlucci’s Bakery and Aquarius Fish, said Salt Lake City cooking instructor Marguerite Marceau Henderson.

“What he’s done for the Utah food industry — he catapulted it,” she said. “”No one knew what good Italian food products were until he brought in the sauces and salamis.”

Caputo did it with his trademark “quick wit,” she said, and a personality “that could always make you laugh.”

Through the years, Caputo’s support helped launch numerous food businesses and producers, the most famous of which is Creminelli Fine Meats. Owner Cristiano Creminelli started making his artisan salami in the basement of Caputo’s in 2007. Today, the products are sold in high-end grocery stores and cafes nationwide.

Caputo’s has been a regular sponsor of the Downtown Farmers Market for more than a decade, said Alison Einerson, executive director of Urban Food Connections, which operates the crowd-pleasing event. He relished the summertime staple, even though it consumed the parking lot and street in front of his business every Saturday.

“There is no real way to measure the impact Tony Caputo and his family have had on the food scene in this city,” she said. “From his energy and spirit to his humor, he was an incredible presence in this town.”

Caputo is survived by his wife, two sons and their spouses and four grandchildren.