Volume 76, Number 1 | June 6 - 12, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan St. sells 35 types of cheese.

Joe’s Dairy mozzarella maestros make cheese an art

By Jennifer Milne

The windows of Joe’s Dairy are thick with condensation, and large yellow wheels of cheese can be seen only by peering through the dripping water on the glass. A red, white and green sign hanging above the tiny storefront welcomes passersby with the Italian family spirit that permeates the establishment.

Inside the store, there is the smell of milk and steam and smoke, which drifts among the stacked boxes of curds and sausages hanging from sprinkler pipes. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, but more than atmosphere, the handmade mozzarella is why the Soho establishment, at 156 Sullivan St., is never empty.

Joe’s sells 35 different types of cheeses, but everyone must try the smoked mozzarella, according to Vincent Campanelli, a jovial, heavyset man whose brother Anthony owns the store.

“That’s the hook,” said Campanelli, 54. “People still appreciate homemade rather than machine made.”

Joe’s Dairy has been in Soho longer than 30 years, but mozzarella making has only been a labor of love for the Campanelli family since 1977, when Vincent’s brother Anthony, 47, bought the store from original owner Joe Aiello. Anthony was 17 years old, working at Joe’s and about to graduate from high school. He had no interest in attending college, so when Aiello offered to sell the store to him, Anthony jumped at the chance and soon was the proud owner just a few months shy of his 18th birthday.

Vincent has been with the store part time since 1977, as well, and took up full-time work seven years ago. The Campanelli team is rounded out by father Frank, 80, and uncle Nick, 76, who are both still very involved with the day-to-day operations of the business.

The store never advertises and draws all its business through word of mouth. The word, it seems, has spread. Vincent says Joe’s has been mentioned in most of the 50 states, and people have come from as far as England and Australia seeking mozzarella and asking about Joe.

“That’s the great riddle,” Campanelli said. “Everybody says ‘Who’s Joe?’ There is no Joe.”

People may go into Joe’s looking for Joe, but they certainly stay, and return frequently, for the cheese. Inside the tiny space, the counter is buzzing with activity. Most customers come in to take home 1-pound mozzarella balls, but also leave with a piece of feta, ricotta, Parmesan or Manchego cheese. Rose Pianoforte, a family friend of the Campanellis, has worked the counter at Joe’s for eight years. She recognizes that the store, with its homemade mozzarella, is going against the grain in an era of commercialized and prepackaged foods.

“People are learning about food on the Food Channel,” said Pianoforte. “They don’t even know what their kitchens look like.”

Joe’s is one of few cheese shops that still makes and smokes its own mozzarella by hand. The mozzarella-making process is not nearly as arduous as one might imagine. In fact, going from a box of curds to a 1-pound ball of perfectly smoked mozzarella takes only 10 minutes.

The process begins when mozzarella curd is pushed through guitar strings 35 pounds at a time to cut it. Then, the curd slices are infused with water, drained, infused with new water, stretched “like taffy,” salted and cut to form 1-pound balls. When water is added to the cheese, it must be boiling hot. Anthony will stick his bare hands into the store’s 185-degree pot of water to break apart the mozzarella, but Vincent prefers the less painful parts of the process.

“I have dainty hands,” he said. “Anthony could probably stick his hands in a volcano.”

Smoking the balls of mozzarella only takes another two to two-and-a-half minutes. The balls are placed in a barrel with wood chips underneath and exposed to the smoke. Vincent says he can tell when the cheese is done by watching the flame at the bottom of the barrel: When it dies out and comes back up again, the process is finished. Since smoking is a subjective process, the color of each batch will vary. Vincent prefers a darker brown while Anthony likes a lighter brown for the outside of the mozzarella ball. Neither would ever use the supermarket approach of “liquid smoke” to make their cheese.

“Don’t ever go to the supermarket and buy mozzarella,” Campanelli said. “You might as well boil your sneaker. It’s not cheese.”

Today, Joe’s Dairy enjoys great success and no trace of the struggle during the Campanelli brothers’ first few years is evident. The first time the brothers tried smoking mozzarella in the shop’s cellar, everything went horribly wrong. Thick, pungent smoke billowed out onto Sullivan St. and within minutes the Fire Department had arrived.

Vincent laughed as he reminisced about those days 30 years ago.

“There’s a firehouse on King and West Houston,” he said. “Before we smoked mozzarella, we’d call them. It got to the point where the firemen would come down and say, ‘Hey guys, how is it?’ ”

Vincent also remembers being barely ahead of their creditors while the business tried to stay afloat financially. Then, in the third year, everything came together.

“[Anthony and I] looked at each other and said, ‘This is going to work,’ ” he recalled.

For those who enjoy Joe’s products, the Campanelli clan have no plans of quitting the cheese business any time soon. They bring in new cheese offerings frequently, noting how they’re received by the public, and then decide whether to make them regulars or keep searching. Vincent said that although running the shop requires 80-hour weeks and no time for a social life, it is personally rewarding.

“The best part is working with family,” he said. “When days are good, it’s fun. When days are bad, it’s still fun because it’s your family. We don’t even have to say anything, we know what the other person is going to say.”

Even though Vincent started his career as a high school teacher, he is convinced Joe’s will be his last job.

“I can’t imagine working for anyone besides my brother,” he said.

Joe’s Dairy, 156 Sullivan St., is open Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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