Updated at 5:45 pm on Wednesday Feb. 11
Cheese is a minor miracle. It’s basically curdled and reformed milk, but change the source animal, vary the process, subject it to mold, eat it soon or age it in a controlled environment, and it’s as various as books in a library. And with a few special ingredients and easily available equipment, it’s easy to make.
Antonio (Tony) Saccoccia, chef and owner of the Grill on Main in Edgartown, invited us to observe while he made mozzarella and ricotta cheeses in the restaurant’s kitchen. When we arrived, he had, as he said, “through the magic of television …” partially completed the process for the mozzarella. Because there’s a long wait between the separation and the stretching of the cheese, this enabled us to witness the entire procedure without spending most of the day at the restaurant.
Mr. Saccoccia grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Natick, R.I. How Italian was it? According to Tony, in his fourth grade class, “out of 20 kids, four were ‘Antonios’ and one was ‘Anthony.’” His father owned a butcher shop and grocery store, which would now be considered an Italian specialty shop. Then, it was merely a neighborhood store. Mr. Saccoccia became interested in making Italian cheeses while studying at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. In class, they made mozzarella from curd. “It was mind-boggling,” he recalls. “No one was doing that. It’s old now, but that was on the forefront of any culinary expertise.”
While he talks, Mr. Saccoccia dumps a gallon of Stop and Shop whole milk into a large, heavy pot on the stove, and turns the heat to high. “It’s easier to use unpasteurized milk,” he says; “it’ll react differently. It’ll come together more easily. But for demonstration purposes …” He dissolves citric acid powder (available online) with bottled water, and stirs that into the milk. “Stir it for 10 or 15 seconds to get it dispersed,” he instructs. “Once it reaches 105° Fahrenheit, you’ll add the rennet.” He uses an instant pocket thermometer to take the temperature.
No one is quite sure when cheese was invented, but it’s widely believed it was by accident. It’s likely that some early nomad found, when he tried to pour milk from the cow’s stomach he used to transport it, that the natural rennet of the bladder had turned his son’s breakfast into two components — curds and whey. And because one threw away nothing that was edible in those days, the solids (curds) and the liquid (whey) were consumed. Desert dwellers found that the addition of salt kept the cheese from spoiling in the heat. Later, European cheese makers, blessed by cooler temperatures, found that microbe-produced molds invoked interesting flavors and textures.
Cheese making and eating was an everyday pleasure in ancient Rome, mentioned by such philosophers as Pliny (circa 72 CE) and Columella (circa 65 CE). By this time, it had become a sophisticated process, involving pressing of the curd and aging. It is estimated that Italy now produces more than 400 different kinds of cheese.
Mr. Saccoccia tests the temperature of the mixture on the stove. It’s reached the desired 105°, and he stirs in the vegetable rennet (animal rennet is also available) that’s been mixed into more bottled water. He turns off the heat, and continues stirring. Yellowish liquid appears around the edges, and he covers the pot with aluminum foil. “This has to sit for about 20 minutes,” he explains.
Rumor has it that mozzarella cheese was invented in a factory when the curds accidentally fell into a vat of hot water. What is known for certain is that it was originally made with buffalo milk in southern Italy, and was first mentioned in a cookbook in 1570. The name is derived from the Italian verb mozzare, which means, “to cut,” perhaps because the separated curd is sliced into cubes or, as Mr. Saccoccia thinks, “it’s ‘to whack.’ While stretching the cheese, they probably whack pieces off.”
While the curd sits, Mr. Saccoccia retrieves the half-processed cheese he began earlier. It’s one solid mass that he cuts into cubes. He dumps it into a bowl, then pours on hot (165°) salted water. A large bowl of ice water sits close by in case the cheese becomes too hot. Using double-gloved hands, he gathers the curds and squishes them together. He continues to work them, adding hot water as needed, and the mass begins to get stringy. Soon he’s holding a smooth, shiny, stretchy mass. “The more you work this,” he says, “the more the cheese will change names. We want to keep this so it’s not completely incorporated. We want a fresh mozzarella. We want it to be tender.
“To have provola [provolone means “big provola”] or scamorza [a cow’s-milk spun cheese in the same family as mozzarella and provola], we would have to stretch for a longer time so it’s super shiny. That’s what you would do for some cheeses. Dried provolone, it doesn’t make a difference if it’s tough. You’re going to use it for melting. If you want a tougher mozzarella, you would dry it for two or so weeks in a refrigerator.” He laughs. “Or in a cave.”
He pulls a few tennis ball–size pieces off, works them a little, and tosses them into ice water. The rest he spreads like pizza dough on a piece of plastic wrap. He covers it with prosciutto and rolls it from the long end. He wraps it in the plastic wrap and puts it into a nearby fridge. Then he turns back to the stove to make the ricotta.
The name “ricotta” means “twice cooked,” and it is, actually, not a cheese. It’s traditionally the result of leftover whey becoming more acidic and heated to release the residual proteins. It is, technically, curd. Although it can be processed using the mozzarella’s byproduct, there is an easier way. Mr. Saccoccia shows us both, but, because he used pasteurized milk for the mozzarella, warns that that process might not work. It doesn’t.
Mr. Saccoccia empties another gallon of whole milk into a pot. “This cheese is so good as a dessert with poached pears and black pepper,” he tells us. “Or with strawberries.” He dilutes more citric acid and adds it to the milk. “This one I’m going to heat more slowly,” he says. “I’m going to heat it to about 190°.” He recommends stirring it throughout the process, as it scorches easily. The curd separates quickly. He heats it a bit more and stirs it. He pours the curds into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and presses out the whey with the back of a spoon. When he pours it into a bowl, it wears the pattern of the cheesecloth. There’s something delightfully rustic about it. We pick up teaspoons and taste. The flavor and texture is amazing — not at all what you would buy in a tub at the market.
We’re finished, and Mr. Saccoccia retrieves the mozzarella with prosciutto from the refrigerator. He cuts a crusty baguette lengthwise and layers slices of the mozzarella pinwheels, sliced fresh tomato, and basil leaves. That’s our lunch, and it’s heavenly. The mozzarella is creamy, and a great foil for the salty prosciutto. The textures fight for dominance, and all of them win.
What’s next for Mr. Saccoccia? He’s planning on using the quieter winter months to expand his repertoire of housemade ingredients — canning, dried meats, and more cheeses. “I’m going to get more involved with the drier cheeses,” he says. “I was thinking of trying to do Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.” We’re hoping to be invited to help.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the temperature of the mixture should be 190°Fahrenheit when adding rennet. The correct temperature when adding rennet is 105°Fahrenheit.