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Local cravings for cheese go way beyond Cheddar

Thursday, April 24, 2003

By Bette McDevitt

The cheese counter can be intimidating, with strange monikers such as pecora or chevre, and those moldy-looking rinds. More to the point, who knows how they taste? Wouldn't it just be easier to grab an old favorite such as Swiss or Cheddar and head for the checkout?

Carol Pascuzzi guides customers at the cheese counter at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Cheese tips

That's exactly what three Pittsburgh cheese experts don't want you to do. Our local cheesemongers are Carol Pascuzzi of Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip, Karen Novak, a 16-year-veteran at McGinnis Sisters grocery store in Monroeville, and new kid on the block, Amy LeJeune, team leader of the cheese department at Whole Foods Market in East Liberty.

The three find that cheese fans in Pittsburgh are becoming increasingly sophisticated. They break the crowd down into three categories. The first are the regular Joes of the dairy world, who love their Swiss and Cheddars and see little reason to branch out. The second category covers those who like to be adventurous, try new things, who may be well traveled and crave to have at home some of the wonderful cheeses they have sampled abroad. And the third is looking for specifics, such as cheese for certain recipes or for party planning. "When they say, 'I want to talk to her,' I know they need help," says Pascuzzi.

She also appreciates Pittsburgh's ethnic population. "They may not speak English well, but they can name the cheese they want or point to it. 'Give me that stinky cheese,' they may say. I don't need to read books. My customers educate me," she said..

But more people should ask for help at the cheese counter, says Steve Jenkins, author of "The Cheese Primer" and one of the most knowledgeable cheese men in the country. "When it comes to buying cheese, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to find a reliable, impassioned cheesemonger and benefit from his or her knowledge each time you go shopping for cheese," he says in his book.

That sort of relationship paid off for one of Novak's best clients. "I have this conservative customer who came upon the French Morbier, a creamy cheese, separated into layers by a vegetable ash. The bottom layer is made from the morning milking of the cows, and the top layer is from the evening milk, with a fruitier flavor. Now he comes in and asks for that 'more beer' cheese. He's in the first category, but he has broadened his cheese horizons. I see that as my job," she said.

Karen Novak, cheese manager at McGinnis Sisters' Monroeville, says, "I take big cheese liberties here. I am notorious for renaming the cheeses." (Theresa Glenn, Post-Gazette)

Cheesy beginnings

Dave Sunseri is the cheese buyer for Pennsylvania Macaroni, as well as one of its owners. He and Pascuzzi remember when they had a few tables of cheese, "the nuts and bolts of cheeses," Sunseri calls them, including mozzarella, provolone, Romano, longhorn and Cheddar. "It was very simple, because there were only 10 or 15 cheeses we sold. Then customers began to ask for others, and we told them we would find those cheeses for them."

LeJeune and her Whole Foods team didn't quite know what to expect when the store opened last November. "We thought we would stock the regulars, the Cheddars, the Swiss, but we are selling tons of handmade domestic and imported cheeses, and goat cheeses are popular. Our clientele is very educated and know what they want," she said.

Pennsylvania Macaroni now carries approximately 300 kinds of cheese, McGinnis Sisters has around 130 varieties, and Whole Foods carries about 250.

Our experts say that Pittsburghers seem to favor two English cheeses in particular: Stilton, known as the King of the Blues, and Double Gloucester, a Cheddar. The jury is still out on a white Stilton with lemon peel, made by the English, which looks and tastes like a cheesecake. "My English customers are repulsed by it. They tell me it's made to appeal to the Americans," said Novak.

Of course, the grating cheeses, Pecorino Romano, a bitey sheep's milk cheese, and Parmesan-Reggiano, the time-honored cow's milk cheese from the Parma region of Italy, are hometown favorites. When Pittsburgh expands its cheese horizons, the most popular import is Jarlsberg, the Norwegian imitation of Swiss. Novak suggests that folks try the real Swiss cheese, named Emmentaler, good for eating and fondue making

Above all, author Jenkins warns us, avoid the easy-to-grab vacuum-packed cheese, and go for fresh.

At Pennsylvania Macaroni, cheese is cut as ordered. "It can't be any fresher than that," Sunseri said. All three cheese sellers order large wheels of cheese weekly.

Novak uses a large cutter strung with piano wire, then packages and labels them herself. "This cutter will cut a wheel of aged Parmesan-Reggiano as well as a creamy Brie,' she said. "I take big cheese liberties here. I am notorious for renaming the cheeses. Take this Spanish cheese. The real name is Campo de Montalban, a combination of cow, sheep and goat milk cheese. I renamed it Don Quixote, and I sell at least a wheel a week." At Whole Foods, cheese is both cut to order, and pre-cut.

Don't buy without a taste. All sellers are willing to slice off a piece. "How else can you know?" said LeJeune. "There are so many cheeses out there."

Amy LeJeune, team leader at Whole Foods Market in East Liberty, says, "We thought we would stock the regulars, the Cheddars, the Swiss, but we are selling tons of handmade domestic and imported cheeses, and goat cheeses are popular. Our clientele is very educated and know what they want." (Theresa Glenn, Post-Gazette)

Cheese country, USA

If you are looking for that creamy little cheese you had at a hole in the wall in France, forget it. It will not taste the same here, because the United States cannot import fresh raw (unpasteurized) milk cheese. It must be aged 60 days to enter the country. Jenkins thinks cheese lovers suffer for this, as young cheeses are often the most flavorful.

If you like to buy American anyway, our sellers carry the farmstead, (made on a small farm, where they know their animals by name) organic and handmade cheeses produced nationally. One big American favorite is Maytag Blue, made by the same people who produce appliances. It is a big seller with Novak.

"They have these prize-winning Holsteins and make a great blue cheese. I have to use my cheese judgment, to make sure I have it at all times. Once, when I was out of it, I called the Maytag people in Iowa, and they were so nonchalant. 'When it's ripe, you'll get it,' they said. I was out of it for three months. I realized that this could never happen again. So I make sure I have two wheels on hand at all times."

For domestic cheeses, LeJeune recommends Coach Farm Dairy, a goat cheese from a small family farm in New York, and Old Chatham, a sheep's milk cheese, also from New York State.

Can one mention cheese without mentioning fat? European cheeses do not have the same Nutrition Facts labels as Americans do, but list percentages of fat on the large wheel packages. The amount of fat, included in the percentage of "dry matter," is usually about 20 percent to 40 percent, according to Jenkins. Keep in mind that cheese is about 50 percent to 70 percent water. The bad news that 60 percent of the fat is saturated, 40 percent unsaturated.

If it's an issue for you, Pascuzzi suggests eating aged, drier cheese, in which the flavor has become stronger. "You don't need to eat as much to get the flavor and you will feel satisfied." She pointed out the low-fat, low-salt cheeses such as the Heidi Anne Swiss Lace. "People even buy cheese to take to the hospital. I ask them what the patient can eat and we find something."

Pascuzzi, who is on stage every day behind the counter of Pennsylvania Macaroni, cannot say enough good things about cheese. As a vegetarian, cheese is a staple for her. "What I love about cheese, is that I can have it from breakfast to dinner, from appetizer to dessert, I don't know of any other food you can do that with, dear heart."


These are so delicious, according to author Carol Field, that they are described as frico fa respirare i morti -- so tasty that they can make the dead breathe again.

  • 1 pound aged Montasio, Asiago or Parmigiano-Reg- giano
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil or melted unsalted butter

Grate the cheese and set aside.

Brush a thin film of olive oil or butter over the bottom of a large nonstick skillet. Set the skillet over medium-low heat. For each wafer, sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of grated cheese into the skillet to form a 2- to 3-inch round. The skillet will hold about four to five wafers per batch.

Cook until the cheese melts completely and the edges turn crisp and golden, 3 to 4 minutes. While each round of cheese cooks, press down on it occasionally with a spatula to make sure it remains flat. The cheese will bubble and spread before turning crunchy.

Gently turn each round over with a spatula and continue cooking for another minute or until light-golden brown. Remove the wafers from the skillet, set them on a paper towel, and blot lightly with another towel to remove excess oil. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.

Steve Jenkins

Bette McDevitt is a North Side freelance writer.

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