The Big Cheese

Burrata, served as a cold appetizer at Dino restaurant in Cleveland Park. For other places that sell it and ways to serve it, see Page F4.
Burrata, served as a cold appetizer at Dino restaurant in Cleveland Park. For other places that sell it and ways to serve it, see Page F4. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Yet another call about burrata has Sarah Arbury a little on edge. As manager of Cheesetique, a gourmet cheese shop in Alexandria, she gets a lot of queries about this luscious cousin of mozzarella. This summer, they were mostly from angry customers wondering why they couldn't get any of the stuff.

"It's good and everything, but I'm not clear about why people are so insane over it," Arbury said. "Part is probably the super-soft creaminess. Part is the romance: It comes from Italy and has this secret inner core. Or maybe it's the name: burrrrr-ah-ta."

Whatever it is, the whole country seems to have gone burrata (boo-RAH-tah) crazy. For the uninitiated, the cheese looks, at first glance, like a ball of fresh mozzarella with a tiny topknot. But cut into it and the center, a tangy core of cream and stracciatella ("little rags") of mozzarella curds, oozes onto the plate.

In short: It's the molten chocolate cake of cheese. Once you have it, you need to have it again. "We sell 150 orders a week," says Dean Gold, co-owner of Dino in Cleveland Park, where a $12 plate of burrata served with two kinds of tapenade is the top-selling cold appetizer. "If we run out of it, it's not a fun night at Dino's."

Ten years ago, most Americans -- even those who wouldn't dream of serving anything but real buffalo mozzarella on their caprese salad -- had never heard of burrata. Invented in Italy's Puglia region (the heel of the boot) in the 1920s, it became known in other parts of Italy only as recently as the '60s and '70s. It probably didn't reach American shores until the 1990s, and it certainly didn't become trendy on restaurant menus until a few years ago.

But this is burrata's breakout moment. Sales are rocketing, retailers and distributors say. Cheese retailer Cowgirl Creamery, which offers burrata at its California outlets, has had sales double in two years. Gourmet food distributor Chef's Warehouse reports that West Coast sales have quadrupled since January. And Euro-USA, a Cleveland food importer, now sells 60 cases a week, up from 60 cases total last year. This despite the fact that a half-pound ball sells for anywhere between $9 and $19.

Unlike more-famous cheeses, burrata doesn't have a well-charted history. (Of seven cheese reference books we consulted, two mention burrata.) It originated in Andria, a small city northwest of Bari. The name comes from the Italian "burro," or butter, reflecting its flavor.

To make it, artisans stretch warm mozzarella into rectangles, then fill them with mozzarella scraps and a little cream. The package is then tied up and, traditionally, wrapped in the leaves of an asphodel, a relative of the leek. The idea, says Salvatore Santomauro of Di Palo Fine Foods in New York, was to turn waste into wages.

Burrata's journey to global consciousness has been slow in part because Italian food remains steadfastly regional. But it's also because burrata just doesn't travel well. Purists say it must be eaten within 48 hours, preferably the same day it is made. Indeed, the original purpose of the asphodel leaves was to signify whether the cheese is past its prime; if the leaves are dry, it's too late.

America's growing obsession with burrata is what you might call a challenge. By the time the cheese arrives on the East Coast from Italy, it's usually two days old. It's one day old if it comes by air from California, where Gioia Cheese has been producing burrata since 1993; several newer enterprising cheesemakers there make it, too. That means -- if you really stretch the definition of fresh -- restaurateurs and retailers have just five or six days to sell it. After that, it's wages to waste.

Cheesetique tries to keep Italian burrata in stock every week, which manager Arbury says is far superior to the California or Wisconsin versions now available. After Bon Appetit magazine put the cheese on its August cover, however, it was impossible to get: "It was all going to rock stars in New York City," she sighs.

The Italian Store in Arlington also sells Italian burrata -- when it can find it. Cowgirl Creamery's Washington store doesn't stock it at all. The shop doesn't yet have an Italian supplier. "It's like drugs: You need a connection," says co-owner Sue Conley. And if they truck it in from California, it has only a four-day shelf life. Plus, Conley adds, "I don't actually like it that much."

Restaurants have stepped in to fill the void. Besides Dino, you can find burrata at Central Michel Richard, where it is served with cherry tomatoes; at Locanda, where it comes with prosciutto di Parma and Laudemio oil, a peppery Tuscan olive oil; and occasionally at Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City and Ristorante Tosca downtown. Star chef Fabio Trabocchi, formerly of Maestro in Tysons Corner, made sure to have burrata on his opening menu at New York's Fiamma.

Burrata is also on offer at new, trendy mozzarella bars that are popping up around the globe. Obika, which claims it was the first, opened in Rome in 2004 and displays its cheese in giant glass tanks. The concept, which takes its inspiration from sushi bars, has proved so popular that Obika has two outlets in Milan, one in London and one, debuting next month, in New York. Mozza, Nancy Silverton's critically acclaimed Los Angeles pizzeria, also has a mozzarella bar. Next year Chicago chef Tony Mantuano will open Enoteca Spiaggia, with its own mozzarella bar, in Miami.

All of which means that more people will come to know and probably love burrata. Which, perhaps counterintuitively, means that burrata will be easier to find. The higher the demand, the more willing restaurants and retail shops will be to offer it, and the easier it will be for burrata addicts to get their fix.

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