There are fancy cheese shops in Manhattan, such as Murray’s and Artisanal, where I shop quite often but find few if any Southern Italian cheeses. Granted, most cheeses from the Mezzogiorno are not as sophisticated as some Northern ones, but they have special flavors that stay close to my heart, and I have a huge desire for them in my kitchen.
Southern Italy mainly turns out fresh mozzarella, made from buffalo or cow’s milk, and semi-aged or more well-aged cheeses made somewhat like mozzarella. Provola, provolone, caciocavallo and scamorza are all aged cow’s milk mozzarella-type cheeses. They are stirred or spun during the heating stage of their manufacture to make them elastic and stringy. They are Southern Italy’s melting cheeses, the ones I use for zucchini parmigiano, lasagna, calzones, and pizzas, so when I buy them I really want something great, not just a lot of salt and no finesse. But until recently most of the versions I found here were either low-quality domestic or made by huge manufacturers in Italy expressly for import. I’m very happy to report that Citarella in Greenwich Village (424 Sixth Avenue, at 9th Street; 212-874-0383; www.citarella.com) now carries several of the cheeses that I’ve always looked for but couldn’t find, except occasionally on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
On a recent stroll through Citarella I noticed Ragusano, a semi-hard, high-quality Sicilian caciocavallo that I first tasted at the source, the beautiful, ancient town of Ragusa. Eggplant parmigiano made with Ragusano is an elegantly perfumed dish, thanks to the cheese’s gentle smoky quality. I usually add a touch of cinnamon and mint to it. Caciocavallo Silano, made in various Southern regions, is another first-rate cow’s milk cheese that I now find regularly at Citarella. The version there is only lightly aged, so I use it as a table cheese and also for cooking; longer-aged caciocavallo is excellent for grating. Provolone is a more pungent version of these stringy cheeses, but good Southern Italian provolone is still hard to find in the United States. Citarella has an Italian one, but doesn’t indicate where exactly it’s from (some provolone is now made in Northern Italy). I find theirs a bit too strong, but at least it’s not as sharp as domestic versions, which have actually given me mouth sores. I’m still waiting to locate the sweetly pungent and soft versions of this cheese I’ve tasted in Southern Italy.
As far as fresh mozzarella goes, the best local cow’s milk version is made by DiPalo’s (200 Grand Street; 212-226-1033), and the lines out the door on weekends attest to this. It’s soft and slippery, with a slight acidity, and it oozes a milky liquid when you cut into it. Burrata, a fresh Puglian mozzarella filled with creamy curd, is something I’ve been finding at various stores in the last few years and on many restaurant menus in Manhattan. It’s sort of a half-cooked version of mozzarella, and it usually comes tied up in a little sack, sometimes wrapped with a phony grape leaf. The first time I tried burrata was in Puglia, where it was served scattered with pomegranate seeds. It was one of the most luscious things I’ve ever eaten, gooey, runny, stringy, and tangy all at the same time. Burrata is too liquidy to cook with; it’s best served fresh over a salad, especially one with bitter notes from arugula or dandelion that play against the cheese’s sweetness. It is an extremely perishable cheese, so check its date and ask questions of the cheese seller before you buy it. I’ve gotten a few sour ones, but never from DiPalo’s, so I would ideally always buy it there. In addition to the Puglian import they carry, DiPalo’s now also makes their own burrata, which is ultra-fresh, gooey, and sweet.
The quality of buffalo mozzarella imported from Campania has gotten better lately. It is made for export and packed in preservatives, but if you get it really fresh it will give you a hint of what the real stuff tastes like. The best I’ve purchased was from DiPalo’s, where they are very particular about freshness (they seem to have a special touch with mozzarella, both homemade and imported, and they refuse to ship out any fresh cheeses, worried that they might not arrive at their best). At DiPalo’s they shape some of their homemade cow’s milk mozzarella into a form called treccia, a long, thick braid. It makes a beautiful centerpiece to an antipasto platter for a dinner party (I often surround it with oven-roasted tomatoes and olives or, in winter, strips of roasted radicchio and anchovies). In Campania I’ve been served buffalo-milk versions of treccia. I’ve noticed it on occasion at Buon Italia, the Italian food shop at the Chelsea Market, which is another good source for buffalo mozzarella and some Southern Italian cheeses (75 Ninth Avenue, at 15th Street; 212-633-9090; www.buonitalia.com).
Pecorino, made from sheep’s milk, is the other cheese of the South. For years Sicilian pepato, studded with whole black peppercorns, was the only pecorino consistently available in New York. I remember having it as a child, but plain Sicilian pecorino is strangely still hard to find. I’ve had the best luck locating a selection of Southern pecorinos on Arthur Avenue. Citarella just recently began carrying a really good, well-aged one from Agrigento. They’ve also started stocking Piacentinu, a very special Sicilian pecorino flavored with saffron. It’s a beautiful peachy color and tastes almost too strongly of saffron, but I’ve come to love it. I use it as a grating cheese over pasta that contains saffron or some type of fennel flavor, and I love it shaved over a raw fennel salad. I’ve also served it after dinner with a glass of sweet wine. (I’m not sure if this pairing would be considered ideal, but I enjoyed it. Possibly a light, young red would be even better. I’ll try that next time.) Prima sale is a delicious, soft, young pecorino that I’ve eaten in Sicily but have also found at DiPalo’s. I love it served with wildflower honey as a dessert. DiPalo’s also usually carries canestrato, a Puglian pecorino molded in a basket, the cheese’s rind bearing the distinct imprint of the basket, and Citarella has also started stocking a nice pungent canestrato.
The main thing I’ve learned shopping for Southern Italian cheeses in New York is to stay out of the highbrow cheese stores, which carry mostly French and Northern Italian cheeses (Murray’s has a few Southern one, but nothing extraordinary; I hope they’ll begin to carry more). Little Italy (which really only means DiPalo’s, on Grand Street), various stores on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, if you’re up that way, and Citarella are the best places to shop for true Southern Italian cheeses in New York City. These higher-quality cheeses are really worth seeking out and tasting, to get a true sense of the flavors of that beautiful part of the world.