Food & Drink

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This strange cheese is made in Charlotte?

Stracciatella looks like a curdled pudding, but it's really strands of fresh mozzarella di bufala in a pool of milk from Italian water buffalo. This is the Siano version, made in Charlotte.
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Stracciatella looks like a curdled pudding, but it's really strands of fresh mozzarella di bufala in a pool of milk from Italian water buffalo. This is the Siano version, made in Charlotte.

Stracciatella is either the greatest cheese discovery of your life, or the grossest thing you’ve ever refused to eat.

It’s sort of like cheese soup: Tender threads of fresh mozzarella swim in a thick pool of mild, sweet milk. Pass it around to friends and some will scoop a spoonful and swoon with delight. Others will lift the spoon, frown and refuse to touch it. Words like “phlegm” and its more juvenile cousins may be invoked.

In April, the Telegraph of London declared stracciatella “the big cheese of 2017,” displacing the other trendy “It” cheese, burrata. That makes sense: Burrata is essentially a thick-walled bag made of mozzarella, enclosing a pocket of stracciatella; that’s what oozes out when you cut into the bag. Stracciatella can also be confusing: “Stracciare” means “to rip or tear,” so the word “stracciatella” also refers to the chopped chocolate in the more familiar stracciatella gelato and the shreds of egg in the Italian version of egg-drop soup.

Why should you care about this? After all, truly great mozzarella, not the rubbery-firm mozzarella we know in America, has to be made from the milk of Italian water buffalo, and it has to be so fresh that even a flight from Italy won’t get it here fast enough. For most Americans, fresh mozzarella di bufala is something you eat overseas and pine for when you return.

Unless you live in Charlotte right now.

What do you do with this stuff?

Meet the Siano family: Based in Paestum in the Campania region of Italy, a traditional home of water buffalo and mozzarella di bufala, the Sianos – parents Rosa and Francesco, sons Alfonso and Gerardo, and Alfonso’s wife, Alexandra – are here to make cheese. And they’ve brought their milk with them.

Alfonso Siano, shown with the water buffalo in Paestum, wanted to move his family’s cheese business to America for more opportunities. Courtesy of Siano Cheeses.

How excited do chefs get over fresh bufala di mozzarella? Clark Barlowe of Heirloom got an enthusiastic text from Raleigh’s James Beard Award-winning chef, Ashley Christensen, when Siano cheeses first came on the market earlier this year.

“Ashley texted me and said, ‘Are you using the stracciatella yet?’ 

Christensen certainly was: She started serving it with bruléed figs at Death & Taxes in the winter, and served it all summer at Poole’s Diner on a tomato salad with pistachio pesto.

Barlowe was already making his own discoveries with the Sianos’ balls of fresh mozzarella. Faced with Alfonso Siano’s insistence that his cheese needed to be served at room temperature, Barlowe dug into food science and came up with the idea of coating the single-serving balls with beeswax from his hives to preserve it outside the refrigerator.

Alfonso Siano admits he was a little nervous about that at first: “ ‘Oh my God – what is he doing?’ ” But when the balls were unwrapped, they had a slight floral taste of honey.

“He’s surprising us every day,” Siano says.

Innovation like that is part of what brought the Siano family here to begin with: In Italy, they say, everything in food is tradition.

“We just have traditions, that’s all we have,” says Alfonso’s wife, Alexandra Nistor. (In Italy, most women keep their own family name when they marry: Rosa, Alfonso’s mother, is Rosa Santillo.)

“We love our traditions and we keep the quality very high,” Alfonso Siano agrees. “Coffee, everything.”

But for ambitious young people, that can be restricting. There’s not a lot of innovation with Italian ingredients. For that, you need America.

“I’m not one of those Italians who thinks the U.S. doesn’t have good food,” says Siano. “If you want to try something new, Italy is not the place. By bringing those traditions to a new place, they can be something else.”

Coming to America, with milk

Four years ago, Alfonso and Gerardo, then 25 and 22, started to think maybe moving to America would be a good idea. It wasn’t just a desire for change. Economically, times in Italy are very tough.

Gerardo Siano visits with the family herd of water buffalo in Paestum. Courtesy of Siano Cheeses

“Italy right now is experiencing a crisis,” says Alfonso. “For everyone in Italy, it’s like 2008 was for the U.S. I love the U.S., we always loved it. So we talked about it and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to do it.’”

Even Rosa and Francesco were in favor of giving their sons a chance to build something new.

“We are living an adventure,” Rosa Santillo declares with enthusiasm.

They spent months researching possible places to relocate. They looked at climates, populations, economies, even crime rates. Finally, they decided on Charlotte.

“It’s not a small city, it’s big enough,” says Alfonso. “There’s a big number of New Yorkers here (with Italian roots).”

They got visas, made arrangements for family members back in Paestum to send them monthly shipments of frozen buffalo milk, and found a distributor, Inland Seafood, that could get their fresh cheeses to restaurants and stores all over the South twice a week, within 24 hours of making it.

Nine months ago, they arrived in Charlotte and set up operations in a small warehouse south of the city. With all of them working at night – since mozzarella is served so fresh, it’s traditional to make it in the middle of the night, like bread, so it’s ready first thing in the morning – they went to work on their first batch.

It was terrible. For weeks, they struggled to find the problem. It was a little scary, they admit. But the Sianos are very determined and, yes, a bit stubborn.

“There’s a problem here – we have to fix it,” is how Alexandra Nistor describes her reaction.

Finally, they had the water tested. It turned out that Charlotte’s water is too high in minerals. They added two filters and a final steam filtration, required in food handling, and solved the problem.

“It made a huge difference,” says Alfonso.

Taking it out for dinner

Getting a following with chefs was easier. Using Inland Seafood’s shipping, they were quickly in more than 40 stores and restaurants in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and even in Texas, at Underbelly in Houston.

In Charlotte, Siano cheese in four varieties – fresh mozzarella, burrata, stracciatella and a cow’s milk cheese, fior de latte, made with milk from Hickory Hill in South Carolina – is being used at a long list of restaurants and sold in stores including Pasta & Provisions, Zia Pia Imports in the 7th Street Market, Reid’s and Ferrucci’s in Cornelius. (Store supplies and prices can vary: The 7-ounce bags of mozzarella are usually $10.50 to $11; Zia Pia gets the stracciatella occasionally, at $13.99 for an 8-ounce tub. Ferrucci’s uses the stracciatella on pizzas and can order it for customers.)

“What I love about this city, there’s plenty of places with chefs who bring in good things,” Alfonso says. “We’re not cheap.”

Getting the attention of one Charlotte chef turned into a big moment. When they first arrived, Alfonso and Alexandra wanted to try a local Italian restaurant, so they went to Luca Modern Italian Kitchen in Elizabeth. Owner Luca Annunziata heard them speaking and started a conversation. In a few minutes, they discovered they were from the same area – Paestum is about 50 miles from Annunziata’s childhood home, Torre Annunziata. Then they discovered that Luca’s father was a butcher who used to buy chickens from Alfonso’s uncles in nearby Scafati.

“This is destiny,” Alexandra Nistor says. “It’s the first place we went.”

Getting customers to understand how to work with their cheese has taken some education. The Sianos are adamant that their cheese must be served fresh, with a shelf life of no more than two weeks. They encourage restaurants and stores to buy only what they can use in a couple of days and get shipments twice a week. When a New York restaurant wanted a month’s worth, Alfonso refused.

“In my town, we eat it the same day, we don’t even put it in the refrigerator,” he says. “That’s the problem, people try to import it. I wouldn’t eat a mozzarella at 15 days. I wouldn’t even eat it at 14 days.”

In Italy, fresh mozzarella is something you’d eat every day, usually with just bread, a little olive oil and fresh tomatoes. Kathleen Purvis

They make fresh mozzarella in single-serving balls. (Well, here, it’s a single serving: It’s not in Italy, where people can eat a couple of pounds a day, with a little bread, fresh tomatoes and olive oil.) That way, customers aren’t tempted to take off a slice and return the rest of the ball to the refrigerator, letting the milk inside leak out.

While the fresh mozzarellas are catching on, stracciatella is still mostly something you’ll find in restaurants. Chefs, apparently, have less hesitation about using a cheese that looks like a failed pudding.

Barlowe has found that with something so soft, countering it with crunch, such as nuts, is important.

“It’s really hard to beat their product,” says Barlowe. “You get this fantastic Italian product, but it’s made here in Charlotte.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Finding it fresh

For a list of restaurants and stores that carry Siano Mozzarellas, go to their website, Check with stores before you go: The product selection and supply can vary.