April 15, 2008
Hoboken is known for its home-style Italian food. On my first visit here, someone told me where I could buy the best mozzarella I ever put in my mouth, and I've been seeking that holy grail ever since.
Early on, I noted that when waiting in line at a Hoboken Italian deli, most of the orders contained what was called mutz, a local nickname for the treasured cheese. If you pronounce it muttzarella, it's mutz for short. Not "moots" not "mutts" -- like so many mongrel dogs, but something in between. Shopping for the best I could find, I would line up and order a pound of mutz with the best of them.
I tried Luca Brasi, a wonderful sandwich and lasagna palace downtown. The Asian man behind the counter stuck his fork into a big braid of the cheese and pulled it out of the water.
"This much?" he asked.
I knew I couldn't deal with that much, so I got about a fourth of it.
When I began my cheese tasting I realized I had never put all that much homemade mozzarella into my mouth at all, so I was hardly going to be an expert. It's easy to take, but the product is so similar you might wonder what all the fuss is about. I made it a project -- to sample products from as many kitchens as I could. That's a lot of mutz.
The second place I found was the one that all Hoboken celebrates as the undisputed king of mutz joints: Fiore's, on Adams Street. The trick to appreciating it at its best is to eat it as soon as you can. They sell it to you right out of the brine, wrap it in white butcher paper and place it in a plastic bag. When you get it home, if you can wait that long, you unwrap and slice some to eat fresh, at room temperature, oozing milk as you cut it. The secret of Fiore's is that it retains a little more salt around the edges than the others -- and the secret of its raggy goodness is to eat it at once. One day in the refrigerator and it loses something.
In my early indifference to the fresh product, I tried the local supermarket varieties. The one sold at the chi-chi Garden of Eden was forgettable, but at the A & P on Clinton and 7th Street I picked up a ball of the white stuff with a Lioni Latticini label. Reading further I noted that this was manufactured in Union City -- which is practically Hoboken -- so I gave it a try and found it quite acceptable.
My other favorite mutz place, which is nearer to my apartment, is Vito's Italian Deli on Washington Street. Going in here is like a quick trip to Italy -- shelves stocked with olive oils, capers, jarred capanata and all kinds of pasta; a freezer with gelato along with frozen Italian meals, and a deli bar with all the cold cuts and salads you expect, and many items you don't -- like tapenade and marinated fresh artichokes. Their mutz is first rate as well. Some days I think I like Fiore's better, but I wouldn't refuse a bite or two from Vito's.
I haven't eaten my way around Hoboken yet. I've only cracked the surface of mutz, and have a lot more eating to do.