FOOD DAY / WEDNESDAY / A Cheese Course / Lessons from the masters of mozzarella

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MAKING MOZZARELLA is pretty straightforward. It isn't

injected with a mold to develop blue veins, nor sprayed with one to give it a

bloomy Brie-like rind. It takes only a few hours to make and tolerates no aging.

Here's how to make mozzarella: Take milk and curdle it - that is, separate

it into solid curds and liquid whey - by adding either a bacterial culture

(like yogurt) or an acid (like vinegar). Drain off the whey, and add hot water

to the curds. They will soon merge into a gooey mass which you then knead,

stretch and, finally, tear off into knobs. (The word "mozzarella" comes from

the Italian mozzare, "to tear.") There you have it: fresh homemade mozzarella.

When it comes to store-bought fresh mozzarella however, "homemade" is a

relative term. Although there are a handful of cheese makers in America who

make it starting with milk, the vast majority of fresh mozzarella - and

virtually all the fresh mozzarella in the New York area - is made from

commercially packaged curd. That is to say, the first half of the cheese-making

process (milk to curd) is done at a large curd-making plant, and it's only the

last half (curd to knobs) that is performed in the store.

It turns out, however, that mozzarella freshly made from commercial curd is

perfectly delicious. Moreover, even though almost all of New York's mozzarella

makers start with the same brand of curd, the results vary substantially, with

each mozzarella reflecting the artistry and preferences of its maker.

The fresh mozzarella found in Italian specialty shops and gourmet grocers,

a soft, bone-white blob that bleeds milk when you cut it and demands gentle

handling and quick consumption, is what's known as "high-moisture" mozzarella.

The bounceable, plastic-encased version in your grocer's dairy case is

"low-moisture" mozzarella, which, by contrast, can be tossed about, shipped

over long distances and held in the refrigerator for months. And any mozzarella

made from the milk of cows, which is to say all mozzarella made in America,

is, by Italian standards, fior di latte, "the flower of the milk." Real

mozzarella, an Italian dairyman will tell you, is mozzarella di bufala, made

from the milk of the cranky, smelly water buffalo that inhabit the swamplands

of Campania, the region surrounding Naples.

If mozzarella is so easy to make, why don't local latticini (dairy shops)

dispense with the curd and make their own from scratch? Lou DiPalo, with his

brother, Sal, the third-generation owner of Little Italy's DiPalo Dairy and

regarded as New York's dean of Italian cheeses, made no excuses. "My great

uncle made the curd, but it's unrealistic now to make it. I'm not ashamed to

say that we don't make the curd. I don't think anyone's made it here in 50

years."

DiPalo went on to detail the hassle of trucking fresh milk into New York in

the quantities needed to make cheese. "You need a gallon of milk to make one

pound of cheese." He gestured around his tiny store, every inch of which is

occupied by Italian specialty items. "Where am I going to put all that milk?"

DiPalo's customers aren't suffering. The mozzarella he sells, made a few

times each day, is everything they could desire - juicy, creamy and tasting

unmistakably of milk. He starts with a high-quality curd, of course, and after

that, he said, "it's really the cheese maker who makes the difference." At the

store, only the DiPalo brothers and two employees are designated cheese makers.

Lou DiPalo himself demonstrated his craft in the store's closet-sized prep

area a few feet behind the counter. "Look," he explained while stirring hot

water into the curd with a steel paddle, "the curd is going to change on a

daily basis, depending on the temperature outside, what the cow was eating. A

master cheese maker adapts himself to the curd, how much hot water to add and

when to add it. How much to work at one time and how to knead it."

Indeed any shop that wants to sell top-notch mozzarella needs a master. At

Razzano's in Glen Cove, the master is Vincent Condello. "We have three

specialists," he said, "but I teach and supervise." He has particularly high

regard for one of his cheese makers, Cono Femminella. "Mozzarella is a product

you work with your hands, and he has the feeling - il tocco - the touch."

(Condello attributes this gift to the genes; Femminella is from Sassano, in

Campania, whereas Condello is from Reggio Calabria and thus has had to hone his

own cheese making through dint of practice over five decades.)

Lou Rubano, proprietor of Pastosa in Ozone Park, also a Campania native, is

another mozzarella master. Using the same curd and virtually the same

equipment as his friend Lou DiPalo, Rubano demonstrated a slightly different

technique. Like DiPalo, he cut slabs of curd by forcing them through a chitarra

("guitar"), a keyboard-sized frame strung with steel strings. But Rubano's

pieces of curd were smaller than DiPalo's. "The smaller the pieces," he said,

"the more tender the cheese, because the smaller they are, the less time they

spend in the hot water, and they lose less fat." (And, in fact, our sample of

Rubano's cheese did seem more tender than DiPalo's.) Whereas DiPalo worked the

mozzarella while it was submerged in hot water, Rubano ladled much of the water

out of the bowl when the mozzarella reached the right consistency.

One thing that DiPalo, Rubano and Condello have in common is that they all

use the same curd, made by Polly-O, the venerable Mineola-based dairy that was

bought in 1986 by Kraft. Polly-O's customers, who have long-standing - and

often, familial - ties to the company, sing the curd's praises, which doesn't

surprise Pat Guarella, the company's itinerant cheese maestro, who travels the

country preaching the gospel of fresh mozzarella and helping cheese makers

refine their craft. "Polly-O has been making mozzarella for over 100 years" he

said. "No one else has our expertise and knowledge."

In Polly-O's Campbell, N.Y., plant, pasteurized Grade A milk is pumped into

2,000-gallon stainless-steel vats along with a weak vinegar solution to curdle

it. The decision to use vinegar is a crucial one. There are two principle

methods of curdling milk: direct acidification, simply adding an acid like

vinegar or lemon juice to the milk; or cultured acidification, introducing a

living bacterial culture to produce lactic acid. The latter method, some cheese

makers contend, produces a more complex flavor, but it is trickier to control

because the longer the mixture sits, the more acidic it becomes. This means

that there's a relatively small window in which the mixture's acidity level is

optimal for cheese making. But by acidifying with vinegar, Polly-O is able to

produce a stable curd in which the pH level never varies, from the time it

leaves the factory to the end of its 21-day shelf life.

Next, rennet, a coagulant, is added to the acidified milk, and the mixture

is heated to 90 degrees. After 15 or 20 minutes, the milk takes on the

consistency of pudding as the curds and whey begin to separate. Two cheese

makers wield a giant chitarra to cut the curds into pieces, which are cooled,

divided into 45-pound lumps, bundled in cheesecloth and allowed to expel excess

whey. Now three pounds lighter, the lumps are vacuum-packed into

pillow-case-sized plastic bags and loaded onto the Polly-O truck.

Of the major brands of curd, Polly-O's is, by all accounts, the easiest to

work with, and it produces a mozzarella of consistent quality. But there are

cheese makers willing to sacrifice these virtues in the pursuit of nuance and

complexity. Chief among them is Paula Lambert, whose Dallas-based Mozzarella

Company supplies Texas gourmet shops and Internet-mail-order customers with a

variety of artisanal cheeses.

Lambert shuns commercial curd; her mozzarella starts with raw milk that is

pasteurized at the lowest possible safe temperature, "to keep most of the flora

[beneficial microorganisms] in the milk. Then we add cultures and rennet and

make our own curd." Lambert's use of culture, as opposed to direct

acidification (e.g. adding vinegar), is critical.

"The problem with direct acidification," she explained, "is that it doesn't

allow for any flavor development or bacterial growth." But the problem with

cultured acidification is that Lambert's cheese makers have to work quickly.

"Mozzarella will only stretch when it has a pH of 5.2," she said. "Since the

culture is constantly converting the milk's lactose into lactic acid, we only

have a short window in which to make the cheese."

Because the Mozzarella Company makes its own curd, it has to deal with

curd's unavoidable byproduct, whey. Luckily, Italian cheese makers long ago

came up with a use for whey: They cook it a second time to produce ricotta

(ricotta = "recooked"). But that's another story.

HOW GOOD

Twelve of us tasted five mozzarellas, three made earlier in the day at local

Italian specialty stores, one flown in from a producer in Texas and one

semi-shelf-

stable mozzarella from Trader Joe's. It was an imperfect test, as the "fresh"

mozzarellas varied in age from 2 hours to 7 hours, but, interestingly, only one

of the truly fresh cheeses scored higher than the firmer non-local ones.

(Maybe we've gotten too accustomed to the shrink-wrapped supermarket

mozzarella.) While there was one clear winner, all of the cheeses were

thoroughly enjoyed, and each one of them ranked as at least one taster's

favorite.

Taking top honors was the fresh mozzarella made that morning at Pastosa (132-10

Crossbay Blvd., Ozone Park, 718-835-5439). Tasters liked its tenderness and

fresh milky taste. Next came Olivia mozzarella bought from Trader Joe's in

Plainview which, according to the label, is best eaten within three weeks,

followed by the Mozzarella Company (www.mozzco.com), whose cheese was made a

few days earlier and shipped overnight. Then, virtually tied, were that

morning's cheeses from Razzano's (286 Glen St., Glen

Cove, 516-676-3745) and DiPalo's (206 Grand St., Manhattan, 212-226-1033).

-Erica Marcus

HOW TO

1. At his store in Little Italy, Lou DiPalo cuts into a 43-pound block of curd.

2. He slices the curd by pushing it through a chitarra (guitar) into the bowl.

3. After adding hot water to the curd, he stirs the mixture until the curd

melts.

4. When it reaches the consistency of taffy, the mozzarella is ready to be

formed.

5. DiPalo shapes the curd into 1-pound balls.

6. The balls are placed into a bowl of salted water.

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