By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
LITTLE SILVER – Though his name may be similar to the cheese, Junior Mazzarella, the artisan mozzarella-maker at Sickles Food Market, didn’t start making the Italian cheese until four years ago.
Since then, what started as a hobby has turned into a second career for Mazzarella, who arguably could be the best mozzarella-maker around.
When the Brooklyn native and his wife moved to New Jersey seven years ago, she complained she couldn’t find good mozzarella. “She told me she thought I would be good at making it,” he says.
That came as a surprise to Mazzarella because he didn’t even like the cheese that (sort of) shared his name. Growing up he ate the packaged supermarket-bought mozzarella his parents served him. And besides, as a licensed pilot, his days were filled managing his own successful aerial advertising business.
He gave mozzarella-making a try while admitting his first batch was awful. But with advice from a friend in the restaurant business and after consulting chefs – and even watching a YouTube video – he kept perfecting his technique.
“No joke, YouTube made me a better mozzarella-maker,” Mazzarella says.
Soon Mazzarella was giving his homemade mozzarella as gifts to friends and getting positive feedback. “I loved watching them light up” when they tasted it, he says.
It was an interesting segue from the aerial advertising business to a recognized and respected cheese-maker. As a small aircraft pilot, Mazzarella flew message-laden banners for 22 years. But in 2006, while in flight, an engine sputtered out and he was forced to emergency land his plane – and banner – in the middle of Route 37 in Toms River during a busy July 4th weekend. “It shook me up,” he says.
Although he continued to fly, he says he didn’t enjoy it the same way. Mozzarella-making started to take center stage.
Whenever Mazzarella interviewed for a mozzarella-making job, he’d bring along a ball of his cheese and let the interviewer taste his wares. It worked every time.
“That’s what got me this job,” he says. “Bob Sickles says it’s the best he’s ever had in the U.S.”
The secret to making good mozzarella, according to Mazzarella, is patience.
“It can’t be rushed,” he says of the process. Also, he says it’s the opposite of pizza-making. “The more gentle you are, the creamier it’ll be.”
Working with blocks of curd – from cow’s milk – and armed with a large bowl, a long-handled flat steel spoon, thermometer and a “guitar,” a slicing tool that resembles the instrument, Mazzarella makes his mozzarella in front of fascinated customers at Sickles. Strategically adding hot and nearly boiling water, constantly and gently kneading and stretching the curd, he patiently creates the cheese that pleases so many palates.
Also, his mozzarella doesn’t need salt, which he says is a common problem with other mozzarellas, and a good mozzarella is runny. “If my mozzarella doesn’t drip, I’ve done something wrong,” he says.
Mazzarella offers tips about eating mozzarella: It’s best eaten warm, and it should be enjoyed – warm or at room temperature – within 24 hours. “If after 24 hours you have any left – and I hope you don’t – then put it in the refrigerator,” he says.
It’s not just the rave reviews and accolades mozzarella customers heap on him – in person, in phone calls and emails – that brings him pleasure though Mazzarella admits it’s an “ego-booster.” It’s the joy of watching people eat his mozzarella. “I love to see their expression,” he says. “I like educating people … showing people that there’s something better out there.”
He wants people to know “you don’t have to settle for what’s in the supermarket.”
If nothing else, he says, “I’m passionate about my cheese.”