In the early hour before opening at A-S Fine Foods the crew is cleaning the refrigerated display cases, setting up for lunch service, and bringing out the tempting trays of house-made prepared foods. There’s the good natured bantering of a well-knit crew and snatches of singing with the radio.
The store, on New Canaan Avenue in Norwalk, is packed with authentic Italian specialities and fresh cooked cuisine, a local source for the best of Italy. Just ask anyone who loves Italian food and cooking.
While waiting, I browse the imported pastas and food display. The shelves are crammed with jars and cans, some with labels only in Italian so I can’t fathom what they are.
In the back, Angelo Competiello (the A of A-S) is making fresh mozzarella, a task he’s been at since age sixteen. With the practiced ease of a lifetime of experience, he cuts, stirs, blends, and washes — all by hand and eye. He has invited me this morning to watch the magical transformation from curd to cheese.
Mozzarella is made fresh every day at A-S. If you get there before lunch, it’s still warm in its plastic-wrap cocoon. The process begins by cutting cheese curd. At A-S they use organic whole milk curd made with vegetable rennet. Four or five hundred pounds of curd is transformed in a typical week. During the holidays it could be double or triple that.
Angelo pulls chunks of curd off the twenty five pound block and pushes it through a wire strung cutter, slicing it into rough, crumbly bits about a quarter inch thick. The curd, about the consistency of firm tofu, needs a strong arm to squeeze it through.
When all the curd is cut, Angelo reaches up with his long handled paddle to turn on the water from a special tap. “It’s just below boiling,” his partner Jack told me. “The water comes from a special temperature-controlled tank just for cheese making.”
With the hot water in the bowl, Angelo starts working the cheese. He kneads it as it soaks, drains the water, adds a splash of salt and repeats the process two more times. With each step the cheese morphs from lumps of curd to a single ball of soon-to-be cheese. “It’s all in the feel of the cheese,” Angelo said. “When it’s nice and shiny and smooth, it’s ready.”
While still in the last water bath, Angelo begins to pull the cheese, shape it into a ball, and pinch off a portion. “About a pound and a half,” he says. Shaped into a round ball, the cheese is set into cold water to form a skin on the outside that holds in the milk. He showed me how he pulls a long rope of cheese and weaves it into a braid for special orders.
The cheeses are dipped into a cold salt brine and then wrapped. On a separate table, Angelo pulls the balls of cheese into a log, sets it on plastic wrap and then stretches it even further. In a move so quick it
seems like sleight-of-hand, the cheese is wrapped, shaped into an oblong and twirled to seal the ends — ready to be stacked on the counter.
Angelo handed me a ball of the just-made cheese saying, “It’s a working man’s breakfast.” As soon as I got home, I toasted a slice of SoNo Baking Company Tuscan Boule and dressed it with slices of the still-warm cheese.
Despite its soft texture, the cheese sliced well with a knife. As soon as the plastic wrap was opened milky whey began to weep out. The cheese has a delicate fresh-milk flavor balanced by the tang of salt. It’s the texture that‘s really remarkable — creamy yet toothsome, soft on the tongue but with a little chew.
The cheese is never better than when it’s just made. Buy and eat on the same day if you can, although it will keep for a few days. Store at room temperature in Angelo’s air-tight wrap, but once opened, refrigerate.
Fresh mozzarella is a perfect partner for vine ripened tomatoes. It’s excellent on pizza with tomato slices. Marsha makes a family-favorite lasagne-like casserole with thinly sliced zucchini instead of pasta, sliced tomatoes, and fresh mozz.
The cheese is a year-round delicacy too, appearing on bruschetta, antipasto platters, in baked pasta dishes, and for topping meats or eggplant parmigiana. Drizzle with some olive oil and fresh herbs and pair it with a dry cider or light lager. It even makes a great cheeseburger.
Freshly-made mozzarella is a simple pleasure, hand-made to be savored right away. That’s why Angelo makes it every day.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.