Cheese master

CHEESE MASTER: Vito Girardi with burrata at his Gioia Cheese Co. in South El Monte. (Gary Friedman / LAT)

IF this world were fair and just, somewhere in Los Angeles there would be a statue of Vito Girardi. I can see it now: made of marble, perhaps, but certainly of heroic size. He would stand erect, with one arm outstretched, holding aloft a plate. On the plate there would sit one perfect round ball. On the statue's base there would be a one-word legend: "BURRATA."

You have probably never heard of Girardi, but you may have swooned over his cheese. He is the man who introduced America to burrata, and particularly at this time of year as the weather grows warmer (and tomato season draws nearer), my thoughts inevitably turn to Vito and his cheese.

Essentially, burrata is nothing more than mozzarella stuffed with mozzarella — the outer skin is the same pasta filata curd, and the filling is a rough mix of unfinished curd and heavy cream. But that nuts-and-bolts description doesn't begin to do the cheese justice. Burrata is to mozzarella as foie gras is to chicken liver.

I had my first burrata of the season the other day. I'd visited Girardi at his small plant in South El Monte and had picked up a ball that had just been made. I took it home and sliced it into quarters — it weighed a full pound, so I wanted to be able to store what was left over. I drizzled a thread of golden olive oil on top, then sprinkled it with coarse salt and gave it a good grinding of black pepper.

As I cut the ball in quarters, the soft heart began to spill from the firmer outer wrapping. I took a bite. The first thing you notice is the texture — silky on the outside and just a little chewy; creamy on the inside, but with an appealing coarseness, like some amped-up, super-rich ricotta.

The flavor is about as complex as fresh milk can get: at once sweet and earthy with a slightly sour yogurty backbone and elusive hints of flowers and grass that linger on the palate.

Combined with the slight bitterness of the oil, the tang of the salt and the perfumed heat of the pepper, this was about as complex and delicious as anything I ever hope to taste.

Suddenly I realized that the happy humming sound I was hearing was me, and that I had polished off the entire 1-pound ball by myself. That's when I began to think about a statue.

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Keeping bakers' hours

TALL and trim, Girardi is more than a little laconic in conversation — or maybe he's just tired. Cheese makers keep hours like bakers, not bankers. Girardi, who is elegantly silver despite just having turned 49, reports for work in the early afternoon and regularly stays through the early morning. Even while he's talking, Girardi keeps glancing across his desk at a security monitor split into dozens of views of the factory, keeping his eye on every step.

When asked how his burrata differs from that in Italy, he shakes his head and confesses he no longer knows. He hasn't been back to Italy since he started making the cheese. In fact, he hasn't taken any time off since he started the company 13 years ago. "I haven't taken one day of vacation yet," he says. "I'm here every day. When we make cheese, I'm here."

Gioia Cheese Co. is in a slightly scruffy, light industrial neighborhood near where the 60 Freeway meets the 605. Around the corner there's a warehouse with signage in Arabic and Chinese scripts advertising "Italian furniture." Indeed, Gioia shares its building with a furniture manufacturer.

Here, several cheeses are made in addition to burrata — Gioia's ricotta is especially good, as is its mozzarella and mascarpone. The cheese-making room is spotless: ceramic-tiled and constantly wet from repeated washings. You put on booties and a hairnet before you enter, and rubber gloves before you touch anything.

Every piece of burrata that Gioia makes — all 1,500 pounds a day — is formed by hand. The process seems simple. Grab a handful of hot mozzarella curd out of its salt-water bath. It's still a little shaggy at this point, like unkneaded bread dough. As quickly and gently as possible, massage it into a smooth ball and then flatten it into a disc.

Grab a handful of filling. This is so moist it practically oozes cream and it is even rougher than the mozzarella dough (the Italians call it stracciatelle, which means "rags").

Put the filling in the center of the disc and quickly begin to stretch the mozzarella around it, much as you would stretch a pizza dough. When the skin is big enough to completely cover the filling, spin the top to tie it in a knot, almost like you'd seal a balloon. Finally, tear off the top knot, leaving a smooth ball.

It sounds simple, but the whole thing must be accomplished very gently and very quickly. Mozzarella dough is temperamental, and rough or prolonged handling turns it tough. From beginning to end, it should take less than 10 seconds to form a ball of burrata. And, of course, you get one shot to get it right.

Though the cheese is now so popular that it seems nearly ubiquitous in Southern California restaurants, its very existence in this country is really a happy accident. As with so many good things from Italy that we now know well — great olive oil, real aceto balsamico, white truffles — in large part we can thank Valentino's Piero Selvaggio and the late Mauro Vincenti from Rex il Ristorante for our introduction to burrata.