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.
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.
It started on a food-scouting trip the two made to Italy. “We were kind of picking on different things and asking ourselves what else is there that is wonderful that is not being imported into the United States,” Selvaggio remembers. “At that time we were going a little crazy trying to find the best buffalo mozzarella.
“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.”
Girardi had just opened Gioia and was starting to make mozzarella and ricotta (he had tried coming to California in the 1970s, and then again in the early 1980s, but found “no one knew about fresh mozzarella,” so both times he went back to Italy).
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, Cantare 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.
Until then, though, burrata makes a great complement to other kinds of salads, both of greens and vegetables. Serve a piece of burrata in a nest of arugula dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Or make it the centerpiece of a stunning arrangement of sliced beets dressed with blood orange vinaigrette, as Gino Angelini does at Angelini Osteria.
When I’ve had my fill of burrata by itself, I like to serve it on bruschetta, complemented by a dab of tart-sweet radicchio marmalade. A dusting of black pepper bridges the sweetness of the cheese and the slight bitterness of the marmalade.
Selvaggio also pairs it with beets, but likes to serve it as a bruschetta too, with black olive paste, like tapenade, and some kind of cured pork: “Prosciutto, pancetta, lardo, they’re all good,” he says.
At the other end of the luxury spectrum, Selvaggio says one of his favorite ways to eat burrata is liberally spiked with very good caviar. “That is better than any other condiment you can ever think of, and the better the caviar, the better the burrata.”
Burrata is highly perishable -- it is really at its best within two or three days of being made. When it gets a little past that, the flavor is not as complex or delicate, and then chefs do cook with it. Angelini purees burrata and uses it to accompany a rich meat ragu on fresh tagliatelle.
At Valentino, they take it a little further, blending burrata with some Parmigiano-Reggiano and using it to stuff tortellini, which are then served with two purees: one of green fava beans, another of golden tomatoes.
But ask Girardi about dishes like these and he just shakes his head. “Those are the fantasies of the chefs,” he says, sounding like a meat and potatoes man, or at least the Apulian version of one. “I just make the burrata.”