Driving down the industrial avenue I felt a bit nervous as I shuffled for parking among the nondescript warehouses. This part of Los Angeles, South El Monte to be exact, is unfamiliar territory to me, but that wasn’t the reason I was so nervous. My nerves were on edge because I was going to meet Vito Girardi of Gioia Cheese Company, a third-generation cheesemaker and the man behind burrata, the cheese so many of us are crazy about.
In case you don’t know, I am obsessed with this cheese. Now, my obsessions seem to wax and wane over the years, but this cheese has a hold on my soul.
Burrata is a relatively new cheese from Italy, having only been created over the past 80 years. It has been made in California since 1993, when Vito Girardi decided to give burrata production a try. If you’ve tasted it you will probably understand what the fuss is all about. Imagine a ball of stretched fresh mozzarella stuffed with cream and tender threads of mozzarella. When you slice into burrata the cream slowly trickles out, begging to be scooped out and topped on just about anything. Or even enjoyed alone (guilty as charged.)
And then there’s the taste. Oh my heavens, the taste. Sweet, clean, pure, with grassy fresh flavors throughout. It’s like eating the most amazing mozzarella and tasting the freshest milk at the same time. And it’s a taste like no other.
But here’s the rub, and a good reason you may not have ever seen nor tasted burrata: it has an extremely short shelf life. A five day shelf life, to be exact.
“I had no idea this cheese would become so popular – everyone wants some!” Vito told me. Of course, articles in Saveur Magazine and full page features in the Los Angeles Times have only created more demand for this cheese.
I’ve met cheesemakers before and I was prepared for the no-nonsense, let’s-get-down-to-business-so-I-can-get-back-to-my-job type of personality (the wonderful Ig Vella comes to mind.) Vito was a welcomed surprise. A tall, lean man with silver hair, this third-generation cheesemaker was gracious and jovial, taking the time to show me around, telling me a bit of his family history in Italy and how every year the demand for burrata seems to grow. His milk arrives fresh daily from Chino, and after pasteurization he begans various cheesemaking processes. He makes fresh mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone and burrata, with burrata being the last stage of his cheese production (he needs all the elements completed beforehand so that he can assemble the balls of burrata by hand.) He ships all over the United States, with restaurants being his largest customers, followed by only a handful of retailers that sell his cheese. The fact that he is a small cheesemaker coupled with the incredibly short shelf life of his fresh product means that there is a demand and waiting list for his product, but expanding and growing too fast isn’t in his future. Adding preservatives to his cheese will never be an option, and just recently he added another burrata maker to his facility, where over 2,000 pounds of the celestial cheese are made every day, not counting his other products. That’s quite a difference from the 10 to 15 pounds of burrata Vito would make at the family shop in Gioia del Colle in Italy.
Hearing all this only excites me, especially considering that us Southern California folks can get his cheese the same day it’s made, customers across the country are already entering the 2nd day of their 5-day window. Not that it’s a competition. I’m just saying, that’s all.
Like with all things that are sublime in their natural state, burrata is best enjoyed as simply as possible. I asked Vito about chefs cooking with it and he simply shakes his head. I wouldn’t call it blasphemy exactly, but pretty darn close. Because of its unique flavor, burrata served with rich, ripe tomatoes, basil, extra virgin olive oil and sea salt is heaven. Tossed on top of pasta works too, and it’s great served with roasted beets. Lately I’ve been digging it with super ripe sliced peaches and a crack of black pepper. But my favorite way of eating this cheese is slightly room temperature, right out of the container. I can polish off an entire 1 pound ball in no time, and if this was any other food I’d probably lie about doing that. But with burrata? I have no shame.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a meeting with my mouth, a fork and some burrata. My love affair is back on with no sign of ever ending.