The Mozzarella Man, “Old Blue Eyes,” and a Flashback to My Italian Roots

"He ate beautiful food, the old man:
green tomatoes in olive oil, fresh bread,
a big white ball of mozzarella, and he drank
down a glass of purple Chianti wine.
He wore old clothes, he lived alone in the piazza,
where all the summer couples paraded, and young boys kicked a ball agains the wall of the church.”
                                                      —Brad Shumantine

This could have been a poem describing my late grandfather Concetto, a fisherman in Roccalumera, Messina where I spent many a summer. But, let me fast forward:

It was a hot early evening in late May at the Black Stallion Winery in Napa, where the wedding rehearsal dinner party was taking place in honor of our daughter Michelle and Kyle. The food was catered by Tre Posti Foods from Saint Helena. Tre Posti or “Three Places,” as it’s called in Italian, refers to the separate restaurant, patio and garden area. The hosts were Kyle’s mom Kim step-dad Al Chien, and his dad, Ed Lewis. The wine was flowing. The food was authentic Italian and “buonisssimo,” as my uncle Lillo would say.

As I walked around schmoozing with family and friends, and sampling appetizers, I saw this mustached man in white chef clothing standing under a red umbrella with the vineyard in the backdrop. He was heating something in two large copper skillets. The sign to his left read: Tre Posti Live Mozzarella Demonstration, hand pulled fresh mozzarella “al minuto” crostini and Napa olive oil. The server was a man called Chris Johnson. He served me one. It melted in my mouth. I was in heaven. I had another one with a sip of wine, then another. I found myself hogging the station. To an Italian this mozzarella station was like an “Italian Shrine.” 

Fresh mozzarella or “Mutz,” as we call it in New Jersey, is a sliceable curd cheese made from cow’s milk, originating in Italy, home of my ancestors. It is best when served within hours of making it and can be eaten cold as in a tomato caprese salad or warm on crostini bread as depicted here or baked in certain type of pasta dishes, or atop a pizza. The curds are heated in water until they become elastic in texture, then stretched like taffy, kneaded until smooth, then made into round balls to make fresh mozzarella cheese.

Growing up in Hoboken, NJ, my mom always bought a braided version of fresh mozzarella, called treccia at Fiore’s Deli on 4th and Adam Street that was established in 1913. Now owned by the Amato family, the sign reads: “Famous for our Mozzarella.” I used to eat it either plain or with ham on a crusty piece of Italian bread. It was so good that the late Frank Sinatra used to have it shipped from Fiore's to his home in Palm Springs, CA. When I went away to college my mother would periodically send me a care package that included mozzarella, ham, Italian bread and peperoni. I guess she thought if it was good enough for Frankie boy, it was good enough for her son. 

I also ate it fresh from the cows when I stayed at my mother’s friend Rose’s parents Franco and Maria's villa and farm in St. Agatha de due golfi (of the two gulfs) overlooking the Amalfi Coast. Finally, I ate it while visiting my late grandmother Peppina, in Sicily where my mama Maria was born in 1947. Mom used to call mozzarella and tomatoes with olive oil on a wheat baguette “peasant food,” and said she could eat it every day if she had to. Today, it is has become an accepted healthy mainstay of the “Meditaranean Diet.” Buon Appetito!