Among the many, many exhaustively authentic Italian food products that Eataly sells is fresh mozzarella. This mozzarella, of course, is not just any mozzarella: It’s made right in front of your face, by a staff member who hand-stretches the fresh curds into perfect globes and then plops them into plastic containers filled with water, where they sit, waiting silently to be devoured.
Shortly before Eataly opened, E2Eats asked a number of business owners in Little Italy if they felt threatened by the store’s imminent arrival. They didn’t — as the owner of Cafe Roma said, “[I]t’ll be another place to go.” One of Little Italy’s most storied food shops is Di Palo’s, which is known for, among other things, its cheese. Specifically, its fresh mozzarella, which is made on the premises daily. Wondering how the 85-year-old, fifth-generation family-run store would fare against the new monolith in town, we decided to see who had better balls. Of fresh mozzarella, that is.
First we went to Eataly, where, on opening day, the mozzarella counter was a little island of improbable calm amid the surging crowds. A friendly guy sold us a five-ounce ball of cheese, made earlier that day, for $3.80.
As soon as we got it home we took it out of its water and marveled at its beautiful, pearlescent pallor. Much as we wanted to just sit there gazing at it, we cut into it, took a bite, and discovered that, true to its proper name, fior di latte (literally, “flower of milk”) it tasted exactly like very fresh milk. Its mild, slightly grassy flavor was soothing and completely undemanding — it was so inconspicuous you could eat the entire ball and only moments later forget that you’d eaten it. The texture, meanwhile, was slightly grainy and pleasantly rubbery; the cheese emitted faint squeaks when it was sliced. We discovered the best way to eat it on its own was sprinkled with a few grains of sea salt, which goosed the flavor a bit without overwhelming its delicacy.
Next, we went downtown to Di Palo’s, which keeps its mozzarella wrapped tightly in plastic instead of suspending it in water. After buying a 1.02-pound, $6.93 ball from the avuncular man behind the counter, we rushed it home and sat back to admire its impossibly smooth alabaster skin.
As far as looks went, at least, Di Palo’s and Eataly were evenly matched. But flavor proved to be a different story: Where Eataly’s cheese was so mild as to be almost imperceptible, Di Palo’s had just enough salt to round out its milky flavor, giving it a warmth and dimension that Eataly’s lacked. And the texture had almost none of Eataly’s graininess — it was slightly rubbery and very creamy. This is cheese you could eat on its own every day, were you so inclined. And, on an economical note, it would be more affordable to eat every day than Eataly’s, which sells for more than $11 a pound, compared with Di Palo’s $6.89.
So, as far as fresh mozzarella goes, those Little Italy proprietors are right: They really do have nothing to worry about. Victory goes to Di Palo’s, though the fact that fresh mozzarella can be found on 23rd Street is still pretty dandy.
200 Fifth Avenue (entrance on 23rd Street)
Di Palo’s Fine Foods
200 Grand Street