"So we were in Apulia trying different cheeses and we tasted burrata. When we tasted it, we fell in love with it like everybody else. But there was no way to bring it in because it needed to be eaten so quickly."
All in the family
ONE day in 1993 he called on Valentino. "He came to me, trying to push his little mozzarella," Selvaggio says. "Casually I said, 'Have you heard of this burrata?' His eyes lit up."
It just so happened that Girardi is from the very area of Apulia where burrata comes from, and furthermore, he is a third-generation cheese maker whose grandfather had been one of the first makers of burrata.
"It was very exciting," says Selvaggio. "He tried [making] it a few times and then brought me some. I knew right away it was unique. I'm in love with it because it is halfway between mozzarella, which I'm crazy about, and ricotta, which I'm also crazy about. It's the embrace of the two."
Almost as soon as Selvaggio put it on the menu, burrata became a hot topic around town. "I remember Nancy Silverton calling me and asking me, 'Where did you get that cheese? How can I get that cheese?' " he recalls.
For several years, Girardi was the only one producing burrata, but in 1996, another California cheese company, Cantaré Foods in San Diego, started making it. Still, that seems to be it for the United States.
Ironically, though burrata is beloved in California, on its home soil it is still something of a regional rarity. Not only is it specific to Apulia, but it is only made in the area around Bari, and even more specifically, the little towns from Andria to Martina Franca, including Gioia del Colle (where Girardi's family is from, hence the name of his company). If Girardi had been born 100 miles away, say in Foggia, most of us might never have tasted burrata.
Also surprisingly, for something so elementally pleasing, it is not a centuries-old tradition, but a modern invention. According to an Italian guide to Apulian gastronomy, burrata was invented in the 1920s by Lorenzo Bianchino Chieppa, who was working on an estate called Piana Padula near the Castel del Monte. Loosely translated, the guide says, "[He] had the idea to create a kind of flask of cheese for preserving a mixture of cream and cheese in the center."
It goes on to say that at first the flask was created by workers vigorously blowing into a ball of soft mozzarella to inflate it "as you would blow up a balloon." Later, the guide notes, "the family Chieppa perfected a compressor that would create a gentle constant pressure that would create the same effect but guarantee superior hygiene." (Girardi visibly blanches when these antique methods are mentioned.)
Even today in Italy, burrata is rarely found outside of Apulia, though it is beginning to become popular in fashionable cheese stores in metropolitan areas such as Rome, Florence, Bologna and Milan (perhaps, in part, thanks to its overwhelming popularity here?).
Girardi says that when he was working at his family's cheese factory in Gioia del Colle, they would make only 10 to 15 pounds of it a week, but adds, "Here, everyone loves burrata."
As with any food so remarkable, the best way to enjoy burrata is the simplest — olive oil, salt and pepper (and even those are optional). Girardi says he eats it as a "secondo" or main course, "after the pasta, just like a steak."
Of course, there are other things you can do with it as well. But, in any case, fresh burrata should be served raw — cooking would spoil its delicate texture and flavor. It should also be served at cool room temperature. If it is too cold, the cream in the filling becomes firm and you lose that vital unctuousness.
Keep it simple
THE most popular way to serve burrata is as a replacement for the mozzarella in a tomato salad. This is the only way most people are familiar with it and, particularly beginning in late July, when tomatoes start to get really good, it is wonderful.