Donato de Caprio, we hardly knew ye.
Around February of this year, this mysterious Italian began filming himself at his workplace, the traditional salumeria Ai Monti Lattari in central Naples. His early TikTok videos heavily featured the shop itself, a shoebox-sized wonderland of cured meats, fresh and aged cheeses, and shiny green olives.
At some point, though, his phone took up permanent residence behind his cutting board, and he started making sandwiches for the masses to enjoy. Lots and lots of sandwiches.
Deranged yet delicious
Each of de Caprio’s sandwich videos—and there are literally hundreds of them—follows the same formula. He asks, “Con mollica o senza?” (“With the crumb or without?”) while sawing a roll or a hunk of white bread in half horizontally. If the customer replies “senza,” which they almost always do, he scoops out some bread from the center and tosses it away in one smooth, practiced motion.
Next come the toppings, slapped on with all the finesse of an underpaid construction worker laying drywall. A thick sheet of mortadella, perhaps, or a few slabs of salami. A wedge or two of the house-smoked provola or a roughly sliced ball of oozing wet buffalo mozzarella. Eccolo qua, un panino.
As the summer went on, the humble salumiere amassed over 1.5 million followers, including plenty of fascinated Americans. Some drooled over the quality of his ingredients; others shrieked in horror at his lack of condiments and cavalier disposal of the “good part” of the bread. The most common word used to describe him was “chaotic.”
I watched de Caprio assemble sandwich after sandwich, trying to figure out exactly what made these videos so entrancing. The visceral thrill of the dripping cheese? The devil-may-care attitude with which he introduces each ingredient? Or the idea that when you’re working with meat and cheese this good, you can be as chaotic as you want and still come away with the panino of your dreams?
The sandwich man’s TikTok ban
Turns out it was a moot point. On July 23, de Caprio tearfully announced to his followers that he was no longer allowed to film at Ai Monti Lattari. According to one of the few bilingual commenters on his account, his bosses had become annoyed by the flood of TikTok tourists displacing the shop’s longtime regulars.
Watch a chronological sampling of de Caprio’s videos, and you can see his viral notoriety creeping into them—from dedicating sandwiches to followers in Guatemala to turning his camera on queues of selfie takers, who happily scream “Senza!” in response to his signature question.
“I flew from New York City to Naples Italy to try the famous sandwiches from TikTok,” claims one Instagrammer by the name of PrivateJetsetter420. He gives the experience an “8.7 out of 10.”
If there’s an obvious analogue here, it’s Nusret Gökçe, aka Salt Bae, the buff Turkish chef who parlayed his flashy steak salination method into a globe-spanning empire. The difference is that Gökçe’s videos served as promotion for his own restaurant. As the steakhouse’s owner, he was fully prepared to accept the consequences of going viral (and the subsequent backlash, which doesn’t seem to have bothered him in the least).
By contrast, Ai Monti Lattari’s third-generation owners could do little besides watch helplessly as their decades-old business—which doesn’t even specialize in sandwiches—transformed into the Donato show. Though they reposted de Caprio’s clips on their official social media sites, you can easily picture them wishing for a return to simpler times, when their clientele consisted of discerning nonne out for their morning shopping rounds and camorristi claiming the best cut of prosciutto.
Where is Donato the sandwich artist now?
It may be too late for a return to normalcy, though. Hell hath no fury like a bunch of Italians deprived of food content, and so in the days since de Caprio posted his final sandwich video, Ai Monti Lattari has received an onslaught of one-star Google reviews, not to mention hundreds of Instagram comments accusing the owners of ingratitude.
It seems the shop is caught in a bind: keep attracting vitriol for refusing to #freedonato, or give in to de Caprio stans and risk transforming into the same kind of tourist trap as nearby pizzeria Da Michele, famously visited by Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Either way, there’s no erasing the place from foreigners’ awareness: Next time I’m in Naples, I know where I’m going for sausage and cheese, Donato or no Donato.
As for de Caprio himself? Having tasted a mollica of fame, he continues to post videos of his relatively uninteresting home life to an ever-shrinking view count. Although his initial 15 minutes of fame are over, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up opening his own shop, asking “Con mollica o senza?” over and over again as he throws panini together with his trademark insouciance. I mean, if it worked for Salt Bae, it can work for the Sandwich Man.