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Say Cheese: From Abruzzo to NYC

A selection of cheeses from Marcelli Formaggi: Ricotta Scorza Nera, aged ricotta with a black rind; Pecorino Muffato di Anversa, a blue-style sheep's milk cheese aged 3 to 4 months; and Pecorino del Parco, a classic Pecorino of the region, aged 3 to 4 months. Chestnut honey is an ideal accompaniment, especially to aged Pecorino. (Domenica Marchetti)

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about some of the wonderful cheeses I had on my trip to the Abruzzo region of Italy. Among my favorites were the cheeses made by Gregorio Rotolo at Valle Scannese, his organic cheese farm outside the mountain town of Scanno. My favorite was his ricotta scorza nera, an aged sheep’s milk ricotta with a natural black skin and a creamy interior. I lamented the fact that it could not be had this side of the Atlantic.

Later that day I received an email from one Bob Marcelli with these words: “Do I have good news for you!” He did: Marcelli told me that Rotolo is part of a cooperative of cheesemakers that includes Marcelli’s cousin Nunzio Marcelli. Like Rotolo, Nunzio Marcelli runs an organic agriturismo farm, La Porta dei Parchi, in Anversa degli Abruzzi, just down the mountain road from Scanno, where he, too, makes award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses. In July their cheeses were featured at the G8 summit, held near earthquake-ravaged L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital.

About a year ago Bob Marcelli began importing some of his cousin’s cheeses, as well as Rotolo’s (including the beguiling ricotta scorza nera), and now Marcelli Formaggi counts among its clients the New York restaurants Babbo, Bar Boulud, Del Posto and Per Se. Among the other cheeses Marcelli offers is an aged Pecorino del Parco, which is dry and crumbly and savory, and Ricotta Ginepro, ricotta that is cold-smoked with juniper wood, which was awarded 1st place in the 2005 Slow Food BioCaseus Organic Cheese competition.

Ricotta Ginepro, ricotta aged 3 to 6 months, is cold-smoked with juniper wood, which imparts a light smoky flavor to this tangy cheese. (Domenica Marchetti)

These Abruzzi beauties will soon become even easier for cheese lovers to get. Marcelli is working on making them available to retail consumers through a new e-commerce site to be called Abruzzo Pantry, which he hopes to launch within a few weeks.

Marcelli’s own story is worthy of note. His mother grew up on a farm in Virginia, and Marcelli, who was raised in Massachusetts, used to spend his summers on the farm. As a young man, Marcelli studied with James Beard and was a member of Larry Forgione’s opening staff at An American Place in Manhattan. In 1987 Marcelli opened his own restaurant, Stripes, in Norfolk, Va., where he put an emphasis on local ingredients. The restaurant received lots of attention and a slew of awards and was written up in the New York Times. But after five years, Marcelli says, he was tired of never seeing his family, including his three young children. “And finally, Desert Storm came, which turned the area into a ghost town.” He moved back north.

A 2002 trip to Italy changed his path. Marcelli’s aging father had never been to Italy so the family hopped on a plane, eventually heading to Anversa, where Marcelli’s grandfather had grown up. Marcelli was astounded to learn that one of his cousins was operating a restaurant in Anversa, and another was making farmstead cheeses. “After I tasted Nunzio’s cheeses I said, ‘Nunzio, you don’t just make cheese, you make cheese.’”

And so began the process, Marcelli says, of persuading his cousin that there could be a market for his cheeses across the ocean, and of getting the business under way. Bob Marcelli, meanwhile, has become Anversa’s biggest booster. He purchased a house in the village and has made it his mission to spread the word about the region and its organic, farmstead cheeses. In addition to cheeses, he imports other artisanal specialties from the area, including chestnut honey and extra-virgin olive oil.

“My years in the restaurant business were a memorable time,” Marcelli says, “but I think what we are doing now is so much more rewarding, because it's not about me and my vision of food. It's really about something much bigger.”

-- Domenica Marchetti

By The Food Section  |  August 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese , Shopping  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Italy  
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