Decades ago it was not uncommon for Sal Salzarulo, a fourth-generation cheese maker, to get a panicky call at his Brooklyn store. “I’m having trouble making muzz with that curd I bought from you today. What am I doing wrong?” These days, with the very rare exception of a few thrill-seekers and old-timers, no one makes their own mozzarella at home, and Sal oversees a cheese empire that sells 200,000 pounds of fresh mozzarella a week. His company, Lioni Latticini, is one of the largest producers of fresh mozzarella in the country, and sells its cheese in 40 states and such New York City stores as Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, and the Amish Market.
Until eight years ago, Lioni produced all its mozzarella behind a single storefront, 78-19 15th Avenue in Bensonhurst. As the product progressed from niche ethnic food to contemporary American staple, the company outgrew the space. “We had to move production to a Union, NJ, plant because our trucks were getting backed up around the corner,” says director of sales Mike Virga. While Lioni still sells fresh mozzarella at its Bensonhurst store, the space is largely retained for sentimental reasons. On Saturdays, you can find Sal and his buddies cooking at the store’s stove, kibitzing, playing dominoes and welcoming the neighborhood’s newest babies.
Italians emigrated en masse between 1880 and 1920 and introduced the United States to fresh mozzarella. Many Italian dairy men came from southern Italy, including the region of Campania, where for centuries monks had used water buffalo to cultivate the land, making fresh mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala) from their milk. Stateside the immigrants adapted, making fresh mozzarella from cow’s milk (fior di latte).
The most enterprising Italian cheese maker of the era was Giuseppe Pollio, who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1899. Giuseppe came from a cheese-making family in Naples; he brought this tradition to Coney Island where he made and sold fresh mozzarella and ricotta. He soon opened a store on President Street in Red Hook where, with the help of his son Albert, he established a thriving wholesale business supplying shops and restaurants. Recognizing the growing demand for dairy products, particularly curds (the fat and protein solids used to make fresh mozzarella), Albert bought out competitors, formed alliances with upstate dairy farms to ensure a steady supply of milk, and bought a creamery in Campbell, New York, to produce curds and ricotta for sale in New York City.
The growing popularity of pizza in the 1950s spurred cheese makers such as Pollio (by then called POLLY-O) to create a low-moisture mozzarella with a shelf life measured in days rather than hours. Low-moisture mozzarella also melts over a wider surface, making it more affordable to use on pizza. While POLLY-O stopped making mozzarella by hand in 1947, and Lioni in 1983 (in fact the former is now owned by Kraft, a subsidiary of Phillip Morris), around a dozen Brooklyn shops sustain the tradition, most notably Pastosa Ravioli. Anthony Ajello Sr., a former POLLY-O salesman, founded Pastosa in 1962. Today his grandson, 30-year-old Anthony Ajello Jr. oversees the tender, loving production—500 pounds of handmade mozzarella on a typical Saturday. If there’s such as thing as a local Medici of mozzarella, this family is it. (Anthony’s uncles are Louis and Sal DiPalo, the owner of DiPalo Dairy on Grand Street, which many consider to be the best Italian cheese store in the city, though some Brooklynites agree to disagree).
While neighborhood Italians still manage the registers at Pastosa Ravioli, a cornucopia of immigrants—particularly Bangladeshis and Mexicans—man the back of the store, expertly making pasta, prepared foods and, yes, mozzarella. Employees such as Charles Montedoro from Venezuela and Victor Velez from Mexico are now valued members of the store’s cheese-making brain trust, with a combined 13 years of curd experience. Over at Russo’s Mozzarella and Pasta in Park Slope, Saul Mendoza, also from Mexico, has been making mozzarella by hand for the last nine years. “I give every employee a chance to learn, but you can tell right away who can and can’t pick it up,” says owner Jack Cangemi, whose family has been selling hand-made mozzarella for 97 years.
It’s not hard to understand why mozzarella-makers might be reluctant to give up control: a lot can go wrong. If the water is too hot the curds will disintegrate; if it’s too cold the curds won’t melt and can’t be shaped. If the cheese is over-kneaded, its texture will be like a rock’s. “Each 43-pound batch of curd costs $90-$100, and it takes years to train an employee,” says Anthony Ajello Jr. Unless you have the time to supervise closely, or have a lot of confidence in the employee’s skill, it often makes more sense to do it yourself.
While Pastosa and Russo’s owners are passing their cheese-making knowledge onto their employees, other Brooklynites share no such desire. Eighty-nine year-old Georgia Teddone, the owner of Teddone Latticini in Greenpoint, makes 35-50 balls a day, and has no interest in hiring help or sharing her craft: “I’m taking my secrets to the grave.”
TIPS FOR BUYING AND USING FRESH MOZZARELLA
Buy fresh mozzarella from a store that has made it that day. (Good thing you live in Brooklyn or this could be difficult.)
Before purchasing mozzarella, squeeze it to ensure that it’s soft. If too firm, the curds were over-kneaded or the mozzarella was refrigerated; either way, the cheese will be tough.
Don’t refrigerate fresh mozzarella. Keep it at room temperature and enjoy it within 12 hours of when it was made, the sooner the better.
If from some strange reason you don’t finish your mozzarella the day it was made, do refrigerate it, but bring it back to room temperature before eating by sitting it out for a few hours, or by immersing the plastic-wrapped ball in warm water for a few minutes. Or use it in a baked pasta recipe. The reduced moisture in refrigerated fresh mozzarella allows the cheese to bind well to other ingredients.
WHERE TO BUY HAND-MADE FRESH MOZZARELLA IN BROOKLYN
Caputo’s Fine Foods
Quantity Made: 150 balls on weekdays, 300 on weekends; specializes in unusually shaped fresh mozzarella, such as braids and bell shapes.
Secret weapon: Curds come from a small farm in upstate New York.
Quantity Made: 35 balls on weekdays, 70 on Saturdays.
Secret Weapon: Owner and cheese maker Carmela Casamento “puts a lot of love into each batch.”
Landi’s Pork Store
Quantity Made: 70 balls on weekdays, 140 on weekends.
Secret Weapon: POLLY-O curds.
(7425 New Utrecht Ave., Bensonhurst, 718.236.9615)
Quantity Made: 150 on weekdays, 500 on Saturdays.
Secret Weapon: The assistant cheese makers have thirteen years of experience.
Quantity Made: 40 on weekdays, 120 weekends.
Secret Weapon: Cheese maker Rocco Generoso once worked at famed Alleva Dairy on Grand St.
Russo’s Mozzarella and Pasta
Quantity Made: 70 weekdays, 130 weekends.
Secret Weapon: Owner Jack Cangemi’s family has been making mozzarella for 97 years. You tend to pick up a few things over a century.
Quantity Made: 35-50 balls per day weekdays, 75-100 on Saturdays.
Secret Weapon: “I can’t tell you,” says 88-year-old cheese maker Georgia Tedone.
Anthony Ajello Jr. patiently explained the magic behind making fresh mozzarella. He starts with a block of curd (all sources agreed that no one makes their own curd anymore—it’s bought fresh from upstate dairies) which he pushes through a sieve-like device called a guitar (the strings are made from the same material), breaking it into 1⁄2-inch slices. Next, he pours water heated to 180 degrees (some mozzarella makers swear by a lower temperature) over the curds, lets it sit for two to ten minutes, then drains the liquid. This initial “bath” breaks down the curds further; if the curds are particularly soft, say, in the summer, this step may not be necessary. Next, he again pours 180-degree water over the curds and, with a metal paddle, gently moves the melting curds so they begin to bind together. When they have formed into one mass, he tears off a piece (mozzare means “to tear off” in Italian) and deftly shapes it into a ball, which he drops into cool water to stop the cooking and, because it is to be sold as salted mozzarella, places it in a brine bath for five minutes, before folding it in Saran Wrap.
Sound easy? It’s not.
Editor’s note: Eagle Cheese, Piazza Mercato and Tedone Latticini have closed.