A throwback to old times, Falanga’s, a 75-year-old Poughkeepsie company, is still making fresh, handmade creamy-white mozzarella. It’s a mild-but-flavorful complement to basil and tomatoes (of course), atop pizza or, to modernize it, in a grilled ciabatta panini with roasted peppers. I eat mine mostly plain, when it’s not the peak of tomato season, and I’m kind of addicted.
James Jerry Falanga started it all in 1939, at the age of 23; and after 50 years of operating it, he sold the business to Joe Tippa. Tippa operated a store on Main Street selling Italian and Greek specialty foods, but closed it more than 20 years ago to concentrate on wholesaling the mozzarella cheese, which he still makes five to six days a week in his basement – licensed as a commercial kitchen, but with a quick commute and lower operating costs. Tippa has since expanded to grated Romano and Parmesan cheeses, as well as the mozzarella in little one-ounce balls called bocconcini (“mouthfuls”) and a burrata style with a creamy center; the “burr” in burrata comes from burro, or butter, for the cheese’s richness. He also makes mozzarella rolls from scratch, filled with prosciutto, pepperoni, sun-dried tomato or spinach/roasted garlic – the latter especially popular in the summer months, he says.
The original mozzarella was made from the milk of water buffalo, many centuries ago when the Italians began to import the beasts from India. Mozzarella may or may not have been created as a result of a happy accident, when fresh cheese curds fell into some hot water somewhere around Naples. The cheese had to be eaten right away because of lack of refrigeration; but even with modern technology, the fresher the better.
Although the Nazis killed the water buffalo before retreating, the industry revitalized and mozzarella di bufala remains ever-popular, albeit pricey. In Italy, cows’ milk mozzarella is called fior di latte, or “flower of the milk,” and is a common delicious and creamy pizza topping there.
To make mozzarella, raw or unpasteurized milk is preferred for best taste and texture. The milk is treated so that it forms curds, which are then heated until they become stretchy strings, or pasta filata, which is then shaped into balls of various sizes or flattened and filled to make a flavored roll.
Until not too long ago, what most of us Americans knew as mozzarella was a rubbery, low-moisture, long-keeping, low-flavor product best used cooked into a dish like lasagna or pizza. Fortunately, the fresh stuff is easier and easier to find these days; and for the semi-adventurous, you can make it yourself at home with just good milk, rennet, citric acid and a little time and effort. I’ve made it myself a few times. Homemade, the mere freshness of the cheese is irresistible, but be forewarned: It takes a lot of milk to make a little bit of cheese, and it goes fast.
Fresh mozzarella made right is a thing of beauty and needs little to no embellishment to be wonderful. I’ve been known to tear down the plastic wrapper and piggily munch on it, taking a few appetizing bites in the car on the way home.
Joe Tippa makes a lovely salad from small cubes of his cheese with cherry tomatoes, chopped red onion, chopped Italian peppers, minced fresh garlic, fresh basil, olive oil, salt and pepper. He uses no vinegar. “It doesn’t need it,” he says. “It’s out of this world.”
As soon as he told me his recipe, I had to make some – although, lacking the fresh peppers and basil, I had to sub red pepper flakes and a pinch of dried basil from the spice rack. It was still a thoroughly delightful lunch.
But if you’re a Falanga’s fan, or would like to be one, don’t try to like its Facebook page. There isn’t one – nor a Twitter feed nor Instagram account. There isn’t even a website. “That’s too sophisticated for us,” says Joe, who calls himself “completely computer-illiterate.” However, son Eric, who helps out, does plan to make a website, Joe says.
You will have to satisfy yourself for the time being with calling the dairy at (845) 485-2676 or looking for it at local stores. Try the Hurley Ridge Market in West Hurley, the Boiceville Market, Mother Earth’s Storehouse’s Kingston or Poughkeepsie locations, Rhinebeck Health Foods, Peck’s Market IGA in Pine Plains, McEnroe’s Organic Farm Market in Millerton and Marona’s Market in Millbrook.