With the sort of tender loving care usually reserved for newborn babies, John Amato, the co-owner of Fiore's Deli at Fifth and Adams streets, gingerly lifted a silky white substance out of steaming hot water and plunged it into a cool, salty brine. "In 20 to 30 minutes we will have some of the best fresh mozzarella in the world," he announced before wiping his hands and returning to his deli's front counter. All over Hoboken, fresh mozzarella makers like Amato duck into the back of their shops every day - sometimes as many as 10 times a day - to turn an enzyme filled curd into a salty, soft-yet-firm white cheese known lovingly as "mutz" to thousands of mile square residents. When asked to divulge the secret to giving fresh mozzarella a taste distinctive from its machine-made cousin, the city's mozzarella makers let out a contented sigh, close their eyes and point to their hands. The gesture is reminiscent of those that painters have made for centuries when asked to explain their craft. Like painting, making fresh mozzarella appears to be an art form. "You have to feel it in your hands," explains Angelo Lisa, the co-owner of Lisa's Deli who has been making fresh mozzarella several times a day for the last 30 years. "You have to know how to shape it, and when to shape it with your hands. It's something you feel, not something you know." Many believe that you can tell who knows how to handle the cheese properly just by watching them. So when "The Sopranos" wanted to shoot a scene featuring Furio Giunta, a just-off-the-boat Italian immigrant who makes fresh mozzarella for a living, they did not want Federico Castelluccio, who plays the part, to fake it. Instead they went to Fiore's in search of a pair of hands to splice into the scene. Amato's son, John Jr., had hands that appeared to be just what the producers wanted. They could be seen stretching and pulling fresh mozzarella in a February episode of the hit HBO series. Curd in the hand
The process of making fresh mozzarella begins with the curd, a combination of cow's milk and rennet, an enzyme that has been fermented for several days. While some of the city's deli owners used to make their own curd, many of them now buy it from Polly-O, a dairy distributor based in upstate New York. Once they have the curd in hand, they place it in large bowls filled with tepid water up to 175 degrees hot. The heat from the water softens the curd and allows the deli worker to lift and stretch it (sometimes using a paddle) until it takes on a soft, taffy-like consistency. This process, which removes some of the acidity from the cheese and allows moisture to seep into it, can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the curd. "You have to know when it is ready," said Amato, who practiced tying rope into mozzarella like knots before he made his first fresh mozzarella at Fiore's 50 years ago. "It's like making dough for bread. You can cook it at any time, but it tastes best if you know when to stop kneading it and when to start baking it. Mozzarella is the same way. You have to know when to stop." Knowing when it is ready is not an easy thing to pick up. Lisa, who hails from a small town in Italy, says that it took him 10 years of making mozzarella before he felt like he had mastered the technique. Once the cheese is taken out of the heated water, it is placed into a salt water solution for at least 10 minutes before it is ready to be sliced and snuggled up next to a slice of prosciutto or a hunk of Genoa salami and served. The mozzarella that local cheese makers produce, at a rate that sometimes exceeds 150 pounds a day in some delis, is arguably the best in the world. Many residents find that the mozzarella made in Italy, and sometimes imported to local restaurants, does not appeal to them as much since it is made with buffalo's milk. "It just is not as sweet as ours, or as tasty," said Robert Florida, a mozzarella enthusiast who had just purchased a pound at Lisa's Deli Monday. What to do with leftover cheese - which has earned the nickname "white gold" by some locals - is the subject of much discussion. "The worst enemy of mozzarella is refrigeration since it sucks the moisture out of it," says Amato. "If you can not eat it on the same day you buy it, you can freeze it. That preserves the moisture in the cheese. Then set it out on the table the night before you are going to eat it to let it defrost." The key to enjoying fresh mozzarella appears to be ensuring that it retains moisture. "Mozzarella is like a fish; it needs water," explains Lisa, who tells his customers to place the cheese in a bowl of water on the counter if they are going to eat it the next day. While there appears to be some agreement about how to prepare and care for the cheese, there does not seem to be any universally-accepted way to refer to it. "Some people come in here and say they want 'mutz,' others say 'motz,' and still others say 'that white cheese,'" said Amato Jr., laughing. "It doesn't really matter, we know what they mean."