The white blob lay on my counter, leaking a milky liquid. I could hardly believe it. This was fresh mozzarella? There must be something wrong with it. But what did I know? I was 22 years old and had not yet experienced one of the crown jewels of New Jersey eating.
In my hometown of Atlantic City, as in much of the country, mozzarella meant tasteless, fibrous slices of something usually found slumbering against equally insipid sliced tomatoes. Some markets with Italian pretensions sold baseball-sized orbs of the stuff swathed in cling wrap, and it was from these, I assumed, that the slices were cut. My years at Rutgers did nothing to enlighten me. But when I was 22, in 1989, I moved to Hoboken and found myself living squarely in what I would come to appreciate as America’s capital of fresh mozzarella. With that soft white blob, a lifetime obsession began.
As opposed to the mass-produced, commercial stuff, fresh mozzarella is made by hand in small batches, usually in neighborhood delis. It isn’t refrigerated, partly because the best mozzarella sells out the day it is made, either sliced onto hero sandwiches or sold in shimmering hunks cradled in waxed paper. At its finest, fresh “mutz” is one of the more exquisite delicacies in the world. Forget the rubbery bricks you see in the supermarket; fresh mozzarella is so supple and milky that it seems almost alive. Whether the raw material is buffalo milk (as in Italy) or cow’s milk (here), mozzarella making takes immense patience and the kind of slowly acquired hands-on skill that you can’t reproduce in a factory.
In my years as a food writer, I’ve travelled the country and never found anyplace that has a greater concentration of fresh mozzarella artisans than New Jersey, specifically Hudson, Essex, Bergen, Union, Atlantic and Ocean counties. There are four legitimately great mutz makers in Hoboken alone.
The best fresh mozzarella has an unspeakably yielding consistency and an ineffable salty tang. For years, my inspiration and exemplar was Fiore’s in Hoboken, the venerable Adams Street deli that has been most often celebrated in the media. (It was a Fiore’s roast beef and mutz that Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon choked down at the airport in the “Sandwich Day” episode of 30 Rock.) But I wondered: Was Fiore’s really the last word in mozzarella? I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow Jerseyan Harold Moore, a brilliant chef at Commerce, one of New York’s best restaurants. Over the course of a week, we drove all over the state inventorying this embarrassment of riches.
Moore was an ideal guide. Early in his career, at Eccola restaurant in Parsippany, he was entrusted with the making of the mutz. He’s also an expert on Jerseyana. Fresh mozzarella, he explained, is made by putting milk curds—which look like cakes of firm tofu—into not-quite-boiling water, and working them gently as they cook and stretch.
“You want to keep as much milk as possible in the curd,” Moore told me as we stood in the 10-deep line at Fiore’s House of Quality one Saturday morning. “If the water is too hot, the curds melt and the emulsion breaks—the milk goes into the water, and the cheese won’t taste like anything.” If the water isn’t hot enough, the curds don’t cook properly. Other snares include overworking the curd so that it becomes tough and fibrous, a rubbery ball of nothingness. The key is a sure hand that works the curd into mozzarella quickly, bringing out its best qualities, and quits before it goes too far.
Fiore’s owner John Amato handed us a huge braided loaf, gently leaking milky whey. (The braiding isn’t strictly necessary; it’s an aesthetic flourish, like putting little paper frills on the ends of lamb chops.) Fiore’s product has always presented me with a baffling challenge: How do you eat this stuff? It’s too good to put on a sandwich—even the mind-blowing roast-beef number that Liz Lemon likes. I don’t even want it to touch a tomato—certainly not the kind you get out of season. Really, I told Moore, the only place to eat it is over the sink. That’s when I am happiest.
“Let’s eat it on the hood of my car,” he said, equally stirred. Fiore’s mozzarella is superb, but to our surprise we found it somewhat fibrous; it pulled apart in strands. We moved along to Vito’s, another Hoboken institution. With its framed images of Rocky Marciano and Frank Sinatra, Vito’s is, like Fiore’s, a shrine to old-school Italian-American deli culture. The mutz was vivid and supple, but it lacked a certain salty oomph. We also tried Lisa’s, another Hoboken rival, and we caught it warm, at the summit of freshness. It was very nice, but should have been softer.
Finally we tried M&P Biancamano, a deli rarely mentioned even among mutz aficionados. There we found the absolute best mutz the Mile Square City has to offer—soft, supple, juicy, salty sweet and kept as it should be, in a bath of its own room-temperature whey water. Each mouthful was more addictive than the last—a pound went down as easy as a Jello shot. When pulled, it had no grain and barely any resistance; the most patient hands had formed it.
Those hands belong to Peter Biancamano, who opened the store in 1981 with his wife and parents. His hands are big, strong and gentle, red from being immersed in very hot water for almost two hours a day. (He makes two batches of about 50 pounds each, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. On Saturdays, he makes 150 pounds, and sells all of it.)
Biancamano, like almost all fresh mozzarella makers, starts with curds from the Polly-O factory in Campbell, New York. Polly-O makes maddeningly bland commercial mozzarella and ricotta, but its raw curds, Biancamano says, “are the best on the market. They’re more buttery.” Curds come in 43-pound cakes.
With a chef’s knife, Biancamano cuts the cakes into French toast-sized slices. (“Some people,” he says, “use what’s called a chitarra,” a mandolin-like device that slivers the cakes quickly. “They just want it to go faster.”) He fills a huge stainless-steel bowl with slices, covers the curds with near-boiling water, then reaches for his stirring tool—a long stainless steel oar with a flat blade. Slowly he chops and mixes until the contents of the bowl resemble a slurry. Then he waits 10 to 15 minutes. “You can’t rush it,” he says.
Next comes what Biancamano considers his family’s difference: With a saucepan, he skims off and finally squeezes out all the water. Then he starts over, adding fresh boiling water—but not too much or the curd will melt completely, making the cheese unshapeable. Biancamano dips his hands in a tray of cool water, then reaches into the bowl to massage the hot cheese, pressing it against the blade of the oar to stretch it and squeeze out any air. He does it again and again, but not too much or it will get rubbery. When it’s ready, he pulls off a long, thick, elastic piece; repeatedly folds it in on itself, creating a loaf shape; and drops it into a pan of cool salted water. He knows there are other methods, but he prefers his. Why? “Because it comes out beautiful like that, you know what I’m saying? That’s the way we’ve always been doing it.”
The best fresh-mozzarella makers keep the product in cool water but never refrigerate it. Once chilled, mutz seizes up like a frightened animal, losing its texture and flavor. It turns hard and waxy, worse than a Kraft single. Don’t refrigerate it when you get it home, either. Buy only as much as you can eat in a day or two, and you will experience the true magic of mutz.
After our initial investigations, we still wondered: Is there great mutz beyond Hoboken? We spent a full day working our way around North Jersey. There was Carmine’s in Jersey City, which made a hell of a meatball sandwich, but whose mutz was wan compared to what we had just had. Dozens of places had been suggested to us, from the wholesale-oriented Fresh Mozarella Company in Wayne, to Agostino’s in Sping Lake, a locally famous gourmet store, to Nino Jr’s in Oakhurst.
Our trek reached down the Shore to Point Pleasant. There we encountered Joe Leone’s, a cornucopian Italian specialty store with a second location in Sea Girt and a catering arm. Leone’s mutz was one of the very best we tried. It came in a plastic box swimming in its own liquid. Knowing something about mutz-making now, we tried to engage Dario Toro, one of Leone’s makers, in a discussion of the fine points. But he insisted there were none. "There’s nothing to it," he said. "Curd. Water. Salt. And these two hands."
Finally, at our last stop on our third and last day, we made it to Massimo’s in Kenilworth. The place looked discouragingly new and clean; it had less atmostphere than almost any deli we had been to. This proved not to be an issue. Massimo’s is on the new side, true, but in any case the current proprietors had been in the mutz game for a good long time before that. "We’ve been doing this for almost 30 years," co-owner Nick Altamura told me. "You know, the more you do this, the better you get."
Massimo’s product was in fact the apogee of our quest. Soft and salty, with a notable tang and a sumptuous mouthfeel, it had a consistency like panna cotta and a taste that is perfectly the same throughout. We greedily ate it on the hood of Moore’s car. "It’s seasoned all the way through," said Moore, after a few blissful bites. Then, prodding the cheese, he demostrated how silky and tender it was. "See this texture? It hasn’t been overworked."
"Pour some of the olive oil on it," I replied. It was a tribute to Massimo’s greatness that, even having eating multiple mozzarellas, we were still excited by this last, best find. We continued in silence for some time.
Josh Ozersky writes the "Taste of America" column for Time.com and is the author of three books on food.
Cream of the Curd: New Jersey’s Best Mozzarella
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