Self-professed “recovering chef” Bob Marcelli is founder of cheesemaker and importer Marcelli Formaggi. Trained under the legendary James Beard himself, Marcelli discovered that cheesemaking runs deep in his family, and has for centuries. Once he visited his grandfather’s native village in Abruzzo, Italy, his calling quickly turned from chef to producer, and his cheeses and imported goods have been impressing the culinary world ever since.
We sat down with him and a whole bunch of his remarkable cheeses (including a juniper-smoked ricotta that’s basically Polly-O’s hot Italian cousin), as well as pasta, olive oil, honey and jarred specialties like tomato sauce, pesto and bruschetta, all made in small — tiny, really — batches by his family and friends. Ask me what I did last weekend. Well, since you ask, I ate two pounds of various Pecorinos. That’s right, various.
Tell me about your family’s roots in Abruzzo.
It’s where my ancestors are from — my family’s been in this village since the 1500s. About 12 years ago, my dad wanted to go to the village of his father and mother. My grandfather left around 1916 at age 18, came to America and never went back. One time I asked him, “Grandpa, why did you leave this beautiful little village?” And he said, “To eat.” Not to escape the fascists, it wasn’t anything political like that; he just wanted to eat. Abruzzo is historically one of the most impoverished areas of Italy, and a lot of that has to do with the terrain. It’s incredibly mountainous — I mean rugged, rugged mountains. It was so impassible that there was no real industry. It was also very isolated, not just economically, but families were very close-knit. I think that’s where their outlook on life came from: “This is how we do things, and there isn’t a lot of room for innovation.”
The good news about that is because it was never really industrialized, the land is incredibly pristine. Abruzzo has more national park space than any other area of Europe. What that means is that the products that are produced there are just incredibly pure, pristine and simple, and that translates into the cheese.
What inspired this first trip back?
My father was getting on in age and he’d never been there, so he wanted to go home, if you will. I remember saying to my brothers on the first day of the trip, “What are we going to do with ourselves in this little place for three days?” I remember my dad saying, “We should do something with the village.” Nothing specific, so we sampled some cheese, and when I tasted the cheese my cousin made, I was like, “This is real cheese.”
My wife and I went back about six months later, talked to my cousin a lot more, and over the course of four years we got to the point where we didn’t go anywhere in Italy but the village. I tried to convince my cousin, saying, “I think there’s a market for this in America. It’s not just okay cheese; it’s extraordinary.” It wasn’t about me changing their production schedules or making it a different way, but even the concept of change from their routine was kind of hard for them to grasp.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
People always think Americans come into a situation like we know everything, like, “This is good, but you should really do it this way.” So I said, “I will never ever say anything about how you make the cheese.” They appreciated that, and we’re 10 years in now.
What kind of sheep does this extraordinary cheese come from?
The breed is Soppravizzano; it’s an ancient breed. At one time, there were more than 3 million of these sheep in Abruzzo, and today there are maybe 500,000, so it’s a very rare breed that produces half the milk of a normal breed of sheep. It’s easy to explain to a chef — I say it’s like working with a reduction. It’s concentrated. They identified over 120 wild herbs and flowers in the pastures where the sheep graze, so that’s what you’re tasting.
Not many American companies import soft Pecorino cheese, which is nothing like Pecorino Romano. It’s creamy, mild, practically spreadable.
It’s nothing like anything. It’s very unique. Pecorino Gregoriano is a little sheepy, a few hints of blue, a little mushroomy. It’s named after the cheesemaker whose name is Gregorio. Gregorio thinks very highly of himself, and he came up with the recipe, so he named it after himself.
There’s also Pecorino di Parco, which means “Pecorino of the park,” aged five to six months. My cousin calls it the “flower of the sheep.” It’s the beautiful floral flavor that’s not overly salty. When you say “Pecorino,” people say, “Romano!” Can you imagine eating a piece of Pecorino Romano? You’d be like, “Whoa! Where’s the water?” [Laughs] The way that they make things is really to be eaten, not to just be grated on a bowl of pasta.
What are the cheesemaking facilities like?
It’s a very, very, very simple process. Everything is done by hand. The only machine is the steam kettle that the milk goes in to bring up the temperature a little bit. They don’t even have an electric paddle. They do it by hand with a big whisk.
Do you think they would ever be interested in mechanizing the process, or is doing it by hand part of the point?
It’s the whole point. If you were in the business of making cheese, explain why would you pick an animal that produces so little milk. The sheep eat the same amount, it’s the same amount of effort to care for them. It’s because — and this is the thing that blows me away about these folks — it’s their life, and they’re respecting centuries of tradition. It’s not that they don’t want to do anything in a different way. They would say, “Why? Could you make that better?” I don’t think so. The production is such that this [product] will never be available everywhere.
Given that the FDA has a bit of a reputation for being a stickler for things like cheese, what’s been the most challenging part of importing these products to the States?
You’re kidding me.
I’m not kidding. This is a bronze-cut pasta. It’s beautiful, it’s air-dried for about 48 hours, it’s a remarkable product, but there’s an anti-dumping law, which means years ago, the ways that companies in countries get their products in markets like ours is that they sell products for less than they cost to make. They’re at an advantage over an American product because it costs less. Because we make a tremendous amount of pasta at this company, there’s a law, I pay 19 percent duty on the pasta. And on this cheese? Zero.
I’m sure you didn’t know any of this before you jumped into the business.
We knew absolutely nothing. These producers, they’re not shippers; they’re in the business of making products. So we tried to figure out a way from the States how to get it here. My eldest son, Andrew, who started the company with me, spent six months on the farm, every day on the phone talking to Italian shippers. “No, we don’t ship to America.” We even went to the Italian Trade Commission and said, “Can you help us? We found this great product, how do we get it here?” They said, “Oh, we don’t do that.” “Well, what do you mean?” “If you came to us and said ‘I want pasta,’ we can put you in touch with a bunch of producers, but we can’t help in terms of getting it there.”
How is pasta the most complicated part of your business when imported cheese gets such a bad rap?
Not only is it complicated, but as Americans, as New Yorkers, we’re a little impatient. I’ve had to learn to just take my hands off the wheel. They’re going to have it ready when it’s ready. That’s been the hardest part, but I’ve grown to appreciate what it takes for them to do it. We have more inventory in our warehouse than they have in their warehouse. Why? They don’t make it unless someone orders it. I place an order for dry pasta, it’s going to take them a month and a half to make it. They have one machine. There are four people in the company. It’s Papa, who’s got to be in his 80s, wife, same age, and their only son and daughter-in-law. That’s the company. The honey producers: Papa, Mama, daughter.
Is all the cheese you sell from the village?
All of the cheese is from my cousin’s cooperative.
Any recent newcomers to the lineup?
(Marcelli hands me a piece of cheese.) This is called ricotta passita. They hadn’t made a new cheese in probably 10 years.
That’s the sharpest ricotta I’ve ever had. I didn’t know ricotta did that.
“Passita” means “dry.” So what they do is they rub this in olive oil, work in dry herbs that you would find in the fields and some peperoncino. We didn’t even know they were making this new cheese until we were there. We were lik,e “Why didn’t you say?” They said, “Oh, I don’t know.”
One of the cheeses you sell that stood out to me was Manteca Podolico Colantuano: butter preserved in cheese. Why are we not preserving all of our butter in cheese? Because that sounds like incredible butter.
It’s a lot of work, that’s why. This is made by one of the very few female cheesemakers in Italy. She’s referred to as “the last cowgirl” because she practices the transhumance, which is the ancient tradition of taking the animals, either to the summer pasture or from the summer pasture. The original roadways in Italy were really built along the shepherds’ paths. What’s unusual about this is that the Podolico cow is a rare breed, another low-milk producer — that’s the common thread in my cousin’s cooperative is that they only have animals that are low-milk producers. They don’t make a ton of cheese. So imagine: We’re out here in the pastures, there’s no running back hundreds of miles to the casa to get something. They make the butter, spin it in caciocavallo so there’s a very thin layer of cheese on the outside, and then it’s preserved and tastes like the cheese.
Is that something you just put on bread?
We were [in the village] in the winter sitting around the fireplace, drinking wine and eating cheese with salumi. My cousin ran out of the kitchen, brought out some bread, put the grate on the fire, rubbed some fresh garlic cloves on the bread, toasted it right in there and then just cut off a piece of the butter and let it melt on top.
How did you end up being taught by James Beard himself?
I wonder what I would be doing if I had gone to cooking school. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go to the CIA.” But I was living in Maine and wanted to study with somebody first and see if it was something that I really wanted to do. I had the Manhattan yellow pages and Jim Beard cookbooks (we called him Jim), so I got his phone number and called. “Yes, James Beard Cooking School?” “Hi, my name is Bob Marcelli, and I’d like to speak to somebody about classes.” “Hi, Bob. This is Mr. Beard.”
You called James Beard in the yellow pages?
He said, “We’d love to have you come down.” Classes were equal to about three mortgage payments for us, but I had to do it. So I’m in this class situation, and this is James Beard. You’re basically studying with God.
Was the cooking school in his house?
No, up by Columbus Circle. One day we were making a corn and crab soup and everyone was going, “What do you think?” “It’s wonderful.” I raised my hand, nothing to lose. “I think it could use something.” And Jim was sitting in his tall director’s chair. “Well, Bob, what do you think it needs?” And I went, “Bourbon, because sherry is a normal ingredient in those things.” And he went, “Wow! Yes!”
Was that the kind of teacher he was?
Yes. So he came up to me that day and said, “We have to talk.” I started to come down to visit him once, twice a month and we just talked. He said, “You should really come down to New York.” He introduced me to Larry [Forgione], who was just about to open his first restaurant. It was really extraordinary and humbling, and it taught me: We’re cooking food. It’s not brain surgery. Respect the ingredients; respect the people you work with. Meeting James Beard completely changed my life, the direction, the life of my children.
What do you think he would’ve thought of your cheeses?
He would’ve just been blown away.
Is this crazy or a good idea?
Well, what are you going to do with the cheese afterwards? I think this is for presentation. I can’t imagine anyone in Abruzzo…
What do you think they would say if they saw this?
They’d shake their heads and they’d say, “Why?”