Cheese Balls

Mozzarella’s American renaissance

An Italian gift: burrata, mozzarella stuffed with cream-soaked mozzerella

Four years ago, Romans began flocking to a bar called Òbikà to order mozzarella—served in little bowls, accompanied by artisan products like prosciutto and carpaccio—as if they had never tasted it before. Despite the Japanese-sounding name and the sushi-bar look and logo, everything at Òbikà is Italian, and the cheese is trucked from the mozzarella homeland, south of Rome. This fall, the first American outpost opened in the lobby of the IBM Building in Manhattan. It’s modest, if sleek, and geared for lunch.

And it’s late. Last year, the most talked-about restaurant opening was Mozza, in Los Angeles. The chef and co-owner, Nancy Silverton, was looking for inspiration after leaving Campanile Restaurant, and found it when she stepped into Òbikà. “It’s the perfect canvas,” she told me of her mozzarella moment. “It’s so mild. You couldn’t open a Gorgonzola bar.”

Silverton and her partners, Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich, took a broader—and better—approach than Òbikà, starting with their decision to offer a wide range of dishes, with and without cheese, and a choice of domestic and imported mozzarella, both cow’s-milk and the buffalo Òbikà specializes in. (Buffalo milk connotes luxury, but aside from its much higher butterfat content, it doesn’t necessarily taste better.) Mozza and its adjoining pizzeria caught on so fast because of the owners’ celebrity—and because they had a secret weapon.

Many American trend-following chefs boast of their house-made mozzarella. They have little to boast about. Silverton quickly saw why Batali had advised her against making her own after a brief apprenticeship to a Bronx master. “It was very bland,” she said of the mozzarella she made, “no matter what I did.”

I tried my own hand at paddling a rubbery mass of cheese curd in hot water and tearing off balls of mozzarella—mozzare means “to break”—at Fiore di Nonno, near Boston. Lourdes Fiore Smith, the owner, is the granddaughter of a mozzarella maker who supplied Frank Sinatra and his mother, Dolly; his shop, Fiore’s Deli, still makes mozzarella in Hoboken. As with piecrust and meat loaf, the goal is to manhandle the “dough” as little as possible, to avoid toughening the texture and losing too much butterfat to the water. It was fun but tricky, and I saw why restaurants should leave it to the pros.

I also realized why Italian mozzarella usually tastes so much better: the water. The difference between mozzarella and cheese curds, which taste like hard, crumbly cottage cheese, is only air, for a spongy, chewy texture, and water. And water, paradoxically, potentiates mozzarella’s supreme milkiness. My favorite bottled water is from the volcanic region south of Rome; it’s the water, many think, that made Neapolitan pizza and pasta famous. Why shouldn’t water make Italian mozzarella so good?

Cream can help too. The secret Mozza weapon is burrata, mozzarella filled with shreds of mozzarella soaked in cream. The first bite of burrata, with its unexpected, slow, viscous, creamy goosh, produces fugue-like states. I recently watched a friend take one bite of a softball-size burrata and look up a short time later, unaware he had finished the whole thing. I had seen it before. I had done it before.

The burrata was made in South El Monte, an industrial region east of Los Angeles, by Vito Girardi, the owner of Gioia Cheese. No one in this country makes burrata as good. Few even try.

Girardi himself is surprised by his cheese’s success. His family sold little of it in Italy—just 20 pounds a week, he told me—though they made burrata near its birthplace, southeast of buffalo territory, in Puglia (it is mostly a postwar phenomenon, and made with cow’s milk). Now he sells 2,000 pounds a day.

Gioia Cheese is like any small family-run business in Italy: Girardi, a hardworking, naturally elegant Italian, works in the office next door to his wife, Monica, and they talk across the wall in Italian; their 22-year-old son, Frank, decided to forgo college and go right into the family business. Most of their sales are local.

And there’s a new mozzarella frontier, one undreamed of in Òbikà’s franchising plans: “burricotti,” the couple’s inspiration—mozzarella filled with homemade ricotta. I’d never heard of it before Silverton handed me a very large portion. The whole thing was gone before I looked up.