What is burrata?
It's the Italian cheese of the moment, popping up on appetizer menus from Roslyn Heights (Matteo's is serving burrata with grilled ciabatta and arugula) to Patchogue (That Meetball Place's "Brooklyn born burrata" is garnished with grilled artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives, tomatoes, roasted peppers and bacon.)
From the outside, burrata looks like mozzarella, but cut into it and a creamy emulsion of cheese and cream runs out, deliciously soaking everything in its wake.
For the skinny on burrata, I called Lou Di Palo, partner at Di Palo's Italian specialty market in Little Italy. Di Palo was one of the first U.S. retailers to import burrata from Puglia in Italy. Now he makes his own.
"If you go back 80, 90 years," he said, "no one sold burrata. It was basically a way to reclaim some of the waste from making mozzarella. Now, there's a market for it, and dairies make it alongside mozzarella."
To make mozzarella, he explained, you heat cheese curds in hot water, where they dissolve into a soft mass. The cheesemaker then kneads and stretches the mass until it is properly elastic, then he breaks off pieces (mozzare means "to cut off") and immerses them in salted water.
In the olden days, Di Palo said, the kettle of hot water would contain a large amount of escaped butterfat and little bits of curd that had dropped to the bottom. The cheesemaker would skim off the butterfat, blend it with the curd bits and insert this mixture into a skin of mozzarella. That was burrata, which means "buttered" in Italian.
Today, instead of using scraps, burrata makers blend little stretched portions (stracciatelle) of mozzarella with fresh cream and place them in the center of a malleable piece of mozzarella. "You make a little pocket and close it up, then pinch it and make a little knob."
Di Palo began importing burrata in 1998 but would sell it only on weekends. "It was made in Italy on Wednesday, I'd get it on Friday evening, and I'd start selling it on Saturday morning," he said. "If I had any left over after the weekend, I wouldn't sell it. Burrata has to be fresh."
Eventually, Di Palo started making his own burrata, as can any store or restaurant that makes its own mozzarella. But American cheese companies have started to produce it as well. BelGioioso, the Wisconsin-based Italian-style dairy, makes one that is sold both to restaurants and to specialty markets. Another popular burrata is made by Lioni Latticini, the New Jersey-based mozzarella specialist.
I recently bought an 8-ounce package of Lioni's burrata ($9.99) at Whole Foods, and even if it didn't possess the ethereal lushness of burratas I've had in Italy, the domestic version was a treat drizzled with some fruity olive oil and a good grinding of black pepper.