In L.A.'s not-so-distant pie past, family pizza night meant Friday evening quibbles over thick versus thin crust, debates over the proportion of marinara sauce to other ingredients and, inevitably, a few irreconcilable topping differences. But the one thing no one ever argued about? Mozzarella.
Yes, it was likely flavorless, rubbery and shredded in disturbingly perfect shards. But we ate it up anyway.
In our defense, that processed-cheese loyalty sunk in long before restaurant chefs' current "fresh everything" culinary epiphany. Besides, when you're dealing with soggy crusts and uninspiring toppings, the fantastically gooey consistency of processed cheese had a way of elevating the mix.
Fast-forward to L.A.'s current pizza revival, when on any given night some of this city's best chefs are cooing over their wild yeast dough starters as if they were progeny, while bloggers opine about their favorite pizzeria's house-made marinara and farmers market-inspired toppings. On the cheese front, we're awash in local goat cheese and imported gorgonzola inspiration.
But if you look closely at any pizzeria menu, mozzarella is still there, sandwiched quietly between the crust and the toppings. And it's still the same old mozzarella, too -- as if the cheese is little more than an obligatory cog in modern pie engineering.
In an era when chefs obsess over the freshest ingredients, and spend plenty of chalkboard menu space reminding us of our produce's pedigree, shouldn't an ingredient so central to the pie be consumed today in its tastiest, freshest rendition? Often, it isn't.
Like many chefs, Milo & Olive's Jason Mattick is forthright about his adulation of fior di latte, or fresh cow's milk mozzarella, particularly his favorite local version of the delicate, water-packed cheese. "Gioia is amazing -- it tastes like a tall glass of milk," Mattick says of the El Monte mozzarella producer whose equally mesmerizing burrata has developed a cultlike following at many L.A. restaurants. "I'd love to use it on my pizzas." Instead, Mattick says he has resigned himself "to the slight flavor compromise" of low-moisture mozzarella, which is fresh mozzarella with most of the water pressed out of it.
In other words, he uses processed cheese.
So does Stella Rossa's Jeff Mahin, who praises Gioia's Italian-born cheesemaker Vito Girardi as nothing short of a mozzarella genius. "Flavorwise, fresh mozzarella is the best," Mahin says. He reports often making his own mozzarella for appetizers and salads when entertaining friends.
But he gave up trying to use it on his pizza. "Fresh is trickier to deal with on my pizzas."
Anyone who has bitten into the perfect rendition of pizza Napoletana might scoff at such statements as the musings of inexperienced chefs. In Naples, pizza has been made the same way since its earliest tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil Margherita beginnings, using freshly made mozzarella di bufala from Campania. Traditional Neapolitan-style pizzerias, like Sotto in West L.A., also use fresh mozzarella on their pies (chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack also prefer Gioia).
But for many of L.A.'s pizzeria chefs, loyalty to processed cheese goes back to fundamental crust issues. "If you're baking a traditional Neapolitan-style pizza at 900 degrees for only 60 to 90 seconds, you can throw whatever cheese you want on the pizza for that short time," Mahin explains.
He prefers to bake his pies at 600 degrees for 10 minutes or more. "In that time frame, I have the same problem a home cook does with pizza. Delicate cheeses" -- like fresh mozzarella -- "are so wet, you end up with pools of water on your pizza."
The solution for Mahin, Mattick and even the godmother of L.A.'s pizza revival, Nancy Silverton, was to forgo fresh water-packed mozzarella in favor of the low-moisture version. All three cook their pizzas at a lower temperature for an extended time, which necessitates using processed cheese.
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Yes, it's basically "the supermarket variety that many of us are familiar with from our childhoods," Silverton says in The Mozza Cookbook.
But that doesn't mean chefs are using Domino's cost-conscious brand. The quality of low-moisture mozzarella varies greatly: Some cheesemakers use inexpensive, processed milks that can make mozzarella gummy; other cheeses are aged for one to three months, which affects the flavor profile.
Sure, these chefs could resolve their fresh-mozzarella challenges by adding the cheese during the last minute or two of baking. But perhaps the real reason for processed-cheese loyalty, even in today's obsessive, ingredient-driven pizzeria scene, comes down to preserving a pretty perfect childhood memory. As Silverton notes in her cookbook, "It's nice and gooey when it melts."