Foodstuff: Start Spreadin’ the News … I’m making some ‘mutz’
I recently returned from a business trip to New York City and, besides my work meetings, I had one thing on the agenda: find a hot, saucy sandwich. Honestly, if a sandwich is cold, what’s the point?
Generally speaking, for me, any trip to any place revolves around food. I book epicurean walking tours on vacations, research restaurants in foreign lands, and ensure I spend as many hours walking as possible to work off what amounts to approximately six meals a day.
This trip would be no different. As the spring offseason slowly crept toward the horizon, and I hadn’t been as far away from home as Manhattan since before the pandemic began, I couldn’t wait to get out of the valley and get some foods that aren’t readily available in our tiny town. Additionally, I was excited to spend my downtime poking around in the myriad of specialty food shops which line every street in every neighborhood throughout the bustling metropolis.
On my first full day in the Big Apple, I had too little time to go back to my hotel between one meeting and the next, but too much time to head straight to my second location from my first. Coincidentally, Google Maps walked me toward Manhattan’s Little Italy, an area I’ve never explored during any of my prior trips. Touristy or not, I am drawn to Italian neighborhoods like I’m being called to the mothership.
As if being led by a magical cheese-scented pied piper, I found myself floating into the famous Di Palo’s Fine Foods. As an avid Food Network fan, I have heard about this place for years, and couldn’t believe it happened to be directly in my path. I wandered around inside for an inappropriate amount of time, considering I could neither carry perishable goods in my cross-body bag, nor had any interest in cramming a bunch of foods into my carry-on for the flight home. I can’t help it! I love the smell of cheese! My little town blues were already melting away.
The man behind the counter asked if I needed help and I replied, “No, thank you, just looking around!” with so much joy I think he was startled.
He went back to his business and handed a package to an elderly man, saying, “Here you go, Nico,” in a thick New York accent. Nico replied, “Grazie, Buona Pasqua,” which means “Thanks, Happy Easter” in Italian, and I thought I’d either died and gone to heaven (or landed on the set of a remake of “The Godfather”). I could have stayed, staring at pasta and marinated jars of vegetables for hours, but off to my meeting I went, and the quest for the hot sandwich would have to wait another day.
Back at my hotel that evening — and after some extensive online research to determine what would ultimately become my Great Sandwich Route — I decided to schedule my lunch around what was deemed by multiple articles to be the best veal parmesan sandwich in the city. Headed to Greenwich Village, I stopped at the 122-year-old Faicco’s Italian Specialties.
The man behind this counter explained that what really makes their sandwiches sing is the house-made “mutz a dell,” said in such a way which will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen more than one episode of “The Sopranos.” I almost squealed with delight. This reminded me of regular trips to the Italian grocery stores on The Hill, the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis, where I used to go as a child and watch my grandmother negotiate over what meats were the best and most thinly sliced.
I took my sandwich, approximately the size of a small bus, and headed immediately to the nearest bench to eat it. There I was, alone in the greatest city in the world, just me and my glorious veal parm. Perfect sesame hoagie roll, crispy fried cutlets, tart and rich tomato sauce, and the most extraordinary cheese pull from the fresh mozzarella. Some people see Broadway shows, I make out with hot subs in Washington Square Park.
I returned from my trip and obsessed about that sandwich. With cheese on the mind, and a food column’s deadline looming, I decided to try my hand at house-made mozzarella. The catch? The ingredients and tools aren’t readily available around here, and Kitchen Collage and the Willits Whole Foods have both stopped carrying them. After much Googling cheese-making kits on the internet, I settled on the $30 Farmsteady Italian Fresh Cheese Making Kit (farmsteady.com).
Since the readers of my columns seem to love disaster cooking stories, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: making cheese in your home kitchen is idiotic and the absolute worst way to spend a Friday night. And I say this as someone who once scheduled a first date on a Friday, and, before the first drink arrived, the guy asked if I wanted to bang in the restaurant bathroom. Also, he used a less polite word than “bang.”
After three hours on a project that the instructions said would take 90 minutes, I only succeeded in breaking one of my mixing bowls and so severely scalding one of my pots it took three separate scrub sessions to salvage. Also, when they say to wear gloves to handle the hot cheese in the warm whey, you might as well wear a Hazmat suit, because I wore two layers of gloves and basically have third-degree burns after plunging my arms into 150-degree milk water.
And it didn’t even work! I think I made ricotta by accident! The texture was completely off, and I was so irate and exhausted that I just put this weirdly-shaped dairy goo into a reusable container and went to sleep, hating cheese, hating Italian markets, and hating myself for attempting this nonsense.
When I woke up in the morning, I checked the cheese, and it had undergone some sort of overnight metamorphosis. I ended up with something resembling what I imagine to be akin to a farmer’s cheese. Dense and salty, it looked and sliced like mozzarella before I melted it on to some bread for a breakfast sandwich. But, once warmed, it returned to its ricotta-like state.
While the sandwich at my coffee table definitely did not take me back to that heavenly lunch in the West Village, it did remind me of the city that never sleeps. I ate my breakfast and thought back on my trip: the high of eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The low of a four-pound rat running directly across my feet.
And as my friend Hailey, who recently decamped to Brooklyn from Snowmass said, when I texted her about the mutant rat: “The city giveth, and the city taketh away.” Truer words were never spoken about New York City… and could also be said of homemade cheese.
Katherine Roberts is a mid-Valley based writer and marketing professional who, by the time you read this, will be en route to surf, sun, sand and mai tais. She wishes everyone a restful off-season and can be reached at email@example.com
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