Di Stefano Cheese: The Family Who Introduced Burrata to America | KCET
Di Stefano Cheese: The Family Who Introduced Burrata to America
It’s hard to think of a time before burrata. The ultra-creamy Italian cheese made of mozzarella and stracciatella is near-ubiquitous on menus these days: in a caprese salad, on Neapolitan-style pizzas or with peaches or pistachios, to give a few examples. The truth is, according to Stefano Bruno of Di Stefano Cheese, it’s only about 80 or so years old. First produced in Andria in the southern Puglia region of Italy (“The heel,” Stefano reminds me), Stefano’s father Mimmo started making burrata at age 11.
After immigrating to the United States, he opened a cheese factory in Los Angeles in 1996 — a company called Tutto Latte. “My dad started off with the traditional cheeses everyone in the United States already knew: ricotta, mozzarella, mascarpone,” Stefano recalls. “He also started making burrata, which at that time hadn’t really been seen outside of Puglia — not even in Italy.” According to Stefano, Mimmo was the first person in the United States to make it, though some people had been importing it on the east coast. There was only one problem. “Nobody wanted it, knew what it was or cared about it. All the chefs rejected it.”
All but one, it turns out. One Italian restaurant chef told Mimmo that he couldn’t take the cheese, but he knew one person who might: Nancy Silverton, then of Campanile. As luck would have it, Silverton had recently returned to Los Angeles from a trip to Italy, where she had also visited Puglia. She had tried burrata and fell in love with it.
“She tried it, said, ‘holy crap, this is exactly what I had in Italy,’ and put it on her menu. The very next week, it was in the Los Angeles Times,” Stefano beams. “Nancy was one of the first chefs to believe in the product and if it wasn’t for her, and I really believe this, burrata wouldn’t be what and where it is today.”
Though it hit the jackpot with Silverton, burrata stayed in the background until 2009 or so, Stefano remembers. By then, Mimmo had sold Tutto Latte. “He was a cheesemaker first and a businessman second. He had a staff of 50 people and was learning as he went, basically. So, he sold the company, stopped making cheese and became a sales rep,” Stefano explains. He couldn’t have predicted the popularity explosion that was just around the corner.
According to Marianna Gatto, a food historian with the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, burrata’s rise to the top can be attributed to a few cultural changes that occurred side by side. “Burrata’s popularity is part of the evolution of Italian cuisine in the United States. Many cuisines, including Italian, were modified to suit American tastes. I credit the changes we have witnessed to the maturation of American tastes, a more educated consumer base, an increase in travel to Italy, food tourism, journalism and media. Also, the arrival of new chefs who could not fathom preparing food that was disingenuous to the cuisine of the homeland, who presented products and dishes to consumers that were often superior to what consumers had known as ‘Italian food.’”
She continues, “The evolution of Italian food is really quite amazing when you think about it. People forget that pizza originated on the other side of the Atlantic. What was primarily a cuisine consumed in immigrant homes and seldom consumed outside of immigrant communities less than a century ago has become a much-loved staple of the ‘American' diet — a ‘household name.’” The story of Italian food, and its cheese, is an immigrant story not just from Ellis Island times, but one that continues to evolve today.
It’s understandable that when burrata started to become trendy around 2009, Mimmo felt passed over, both as an Italian immigrant and the man credited with making the first burrata in America. According to Stefano, “my dad said, I don’t know what the word for it in English is — but it’s basically, ‘I feel a bit screwed. Now that I’m out of the game, burrata has become this huge thing.’ So, he proposed an idea. We’d take the money they had saved for college for my brother and me, open a small cheese factory and use the proceeds to help pay for our college.”
More From The Migrant Kitchen
They did just that, opening a small, sterile warehouse in Baldwin Park where they started producing 15 cases a day. This was no small feat, as making burrata is a laborious process and it was just Mimmo and Stefano doing the work. Made by hand, the process involves turning milk into curd, separating it from the whey and hand stretching the curds into long strands that make up the mozzarella part of the stracciatella. Those strands are then mixed with mascarpone and salt, and becomes the four ounces of stracciatella that goes inside of other stretched curds that form the outer shell.
Things reached critical mass when, one day in mid-2009, Worldwide Produce knocked on their door. They wanted to order 40 cases for wider distribution, and the Brunos said yes. They struggled to meet the order, only delivering 28 cases, and promised the rest the following day, along with the other 15 cases they had to produce for already existing clients when divine intervention struck. Four women who had worked in Mimmo’s previous factory came by, hearing the Brunos had re-started and inquiring about work. As Stefano recalls it, “My dad and I took off our hair nets and had them get to work. They filled the order in two hours.”
The Brunos also reconnected with Nancy Silverton. According to Ryan DeNicola, executive chef of Nancy’s Los Angeles restaurant chi SPACCA, “After leaving Campanile, Nancy started the Mozza restaurant group and had been using Mimmo’s former company without realizing he had left. One day, Mimmo shows up with a box of burrata, asking if she’d like some, and she was understandably confused. He explained that he had left a while ago, started up his new venture, Di Stefano, and after she tried the cheese, she realized that this was better than anything else out there. Today, Di Stefano provides all her restaurants with burrata, mozzarella, curd, ricotta and stracciatella.”
When asked about her relationship with Mimmo, Stefano and the company, Nancy beamed and highlighted the high level of creative interaction the two share, along with Di Stefano’s desire for customer satisfaction. “The thing I love about working with Mimmo [and Di Stefano] is the working relationship. Mimmo and I are constantly collaborating. It may be on something simple: I've asked him to create burrata in different sizes to work with a dish I’m creating. Or it might be more involved; I’ll taste something in Italy, then I’ll come home and want to try to recreate it. Often, I don’t even have a name — just the description,” she muses. “I tell Mimmo about a cheese I ate. He always knows what it is and then he makes a few versions until he gets to exactly what I’m looking for. That relationship, for me, is invaluable. It makes my work a pleasure.”
Now with 84 employees, many of them immigrants just like Mimmo, things couldn’t be going better for Di Stefano Cheese. The company distributes nationwide and to Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand. It counts Whole Foods and Gelson’s as clients. They source milk exclusively from one farmer five miles away, GH Dairy, where they have 20,000 contracted cows and can ensure production standards and minimize variables that could affect the milk’s quality.
The future is bright, too. Di Stefano is on the verge of a 25,000 square-foot expansion in a new plant in Pomona. Burrata has moved out of the trend category and into a certifiable Italian cheese staple and the expansion will bring a line of hard cheeses to Di Stefano’s roster, like parmesan and caciocavallo. “We’re making more burrata in our factory, per day, than they are in Italy,” Stefano informs me. “I think it’s a lasting product. I eat it every day and I never grow tired of how good it is. Chefs are being creative too — it used to be considered just a summer cheese, to make with caprese salad, and only used to move when tomatoes were in season. Now they’re coming up with new ideas and it sells year-round.”
DeNicola agrees and adds that the way the Brunos do business is the best way to have quality burrata in the United States. “Cheeses like burrata and mozzarella are only great when they're made within a few days of when it's used. So, buying mozzarella and burrata from Italy only works if you overnight it from Italy and serve it immediately, making it very difficult to serve quality burrata and mozzarella when you have to ship it in from Italy.” He adds a final endorsement. “Mimmo realized this in the early 90's and has been making the best burrata in California ever since.”
Top Image: Making cheese | Dylan + Jeni