March 3, 2008
Burrata Steps Up to the Plate

Over the weekend, we dropped into Gianni's Trattoria along J Street in midtown Sacramento, solely to try an unusual cheese that's been generating buzz among food enthusiasts on both coasts for the past couple of years. Only rarely is it found in restaurants around here, however, though I've heard that Rick Mahan of The Waterboy and Kurt Spataro of Spataro also at least occasionally serve it.

It's burrata, pronounced boor-AH-tah, and it's a cow's-milk cheese most closely identified with Italy's Apulia and Basilicata regions. It's a fresh cheese best eaten the day it is made, or within a day or two. Thus, versions from Italy aren't likely to show up here often, if at all.

Two California cheesemakers, however, have burrata in their lineups, Gioia Cheese Co. in South El Monte and Cantare Foods in San Diego. Peter Torza of Gianni's gets his burrata from Gioia. He has it shipped overnight and serves it as a $9 appetizer only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The cheese arrives at table as a single slab that is long and a very bright white. It looks soft and it is, but with some substance to it. The flavor is delicately sweet and creamy to the extent that it rightfully can be called sensuous. At Gianni's, it's dressed up traditionally, with a sprinkling of a fine olive oil, leaves of basil and freshly ground black pepper. The Cantare Web site suggests: "Serve it sliced with ripe tomatoes, coarse sea salt, and basil for a classic antipasto, or melt it onto crostini and watch the cream bubble into rich little pools. Wonderful with smoked salmon and avocado or with prosciutto and fresh fig. Try tossing burrata into pasta, such as drained penne or spaghetti. For a truly rich caprese salad, encircle fresh burrata with slices of ripe red tomatoes and torn basil leaves, and drizzle with olive oil."

For the accompanying wine, Cantare recommends Montepulciano, or a light red wine such as Beaujolais Nouveau or pinot noir, or white wines such as chardonnay, pinot grigio, semillon, or sauvignon blanc, locorotondo, verdicchio, or a "riesling Italico from Oltrepò Pavese." We tried it with the Cuvaison chardonnay and a sanviovese-based Antinori blend from Tuscany. While both had their merits, I felt the fruit, spine and dryness of the Tuscan red was a better match for the cheese.

Burrata consists basically of leftover remnants of mozzarella combined with cream sealed in a bag of pulled curd. The exterior is somewhat elastic, the interior soft and creamy, even buttery. It's a fine cheese, but a whole lot of equally captivating cheeses are available in restaurants and grocery stores these days, and my overall impression of burrata is in line with what the owner of a cheese shop in Alexandria, Va., told Jane Black of the Washington Post last fall: "It's good and everything, but I'm not clear about why people are so insane over it...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."

The most comprehensive article I've read about burrata was Ross Parsons' feature in the Los Angeles Times about two years ago.

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