A cheesemonger introduces traditional Italian mozzarella to Newport.
By Andrea E. McHugh
As he rhythmically pulls and stretches the snow-white curd in his muscular hands, it becomes clear that Luca Mignogna is doing exactly what he is supposed to. One could hypothesize that making cheese is part of his DNA, since the people of his native Campobasso, located in the Molise region of southern Italy, have been making cheese this way for centuries. Luca has studied and practiced the craft for over a decade, and now he and his wife, Christina, will be bringing their artisan mozzarella made onsite to Newport.
“It’s always for the love of mozzarella,” says Christina. “It’s all centered around this passion – this dedication – to sharing with you a product that we love.”
Fresh mozzarella, she explains, is nothing like what Americans typically buy at the supermarket, or the egg-shaped ball labeled “buffalo mozzarella” (or mozzarella di bufala in Italian) immersed in whey and liquid brine in a container to keep it moist.
“In Italy, we eat mozzarella the same day it is made. You don’t put it in the fridge,” says Christina. “There’s something about hot mozzarella. It is not hot because it has been reheated. It’s hot because it’s literally just been done. It’s like I’ve never had before. And that’s kind of where it all started.
Luca moved to California in 2003 and, missing the flavors of home, he began experimenting with cheese making. When he became more serious about the trade, he thought it best to move to New England, where the seasons better mirrored those of Molise. He studied the science and techniques behind cheese making at the Institute of Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont. Afterwards, the certified cheesemaker returned to southern Italy to study under a master cheesemaker at a caseificio – a dairy where cheese is made. “There, he combined his technical and scientific abilities with tradition,” says Christina. Cheese making is popular in the region, as it originally provided a way to preserve the milk produced in the valley of the Apennine mountains.
In 2009, Luca returned to New England, settled in Massachusetts and made his cheese in a space he rented from another cheesemaker. The only time he could do this was at night, so in the dead of night he would constantly stir the curds, gently releasing the excess whey by hand again and again to form the cheese. Operating as Wolf Meadow Farm, he and Christina (his girlfriend at the time) sold his Italian-style cheeses at farmers’ markets, eventually opening a brick-and-mortar caseificio in 2013 in Amesbury.
Three years later, they became salespeople at Eataly when the famous Italian food store and food hall opened its location in Boston. “That’s when we realized that not many people knew about real, fresh mozzarella, so we became more educators than just cheese makers,” says Christina.
Mozzarella became their sole focus. When their storefront lease ended, they decided to bring their handcrafted product to Newport. Their new store, Mozz, should open this winter in the gardens of Bellevue. During this time, Luca tweaked his cheese-making process, as the terroir of a region can impact a cheese’s flavor profile.
“The temperature around you, the barometric pressure, your proximity to sea level, all of these things can affect your fermentation, so the recipe becomes different in different parts of the world,” Christina explains. “Luca always jokes, ‘If I ever told the master caseificio I worked with that I coagulated at a different temperature than he told me, he would hang up the phone and never speak to me again!’ “
While freshly made, just-stretched and warm mozzarella will take center stage at Mozz, the pair will also make “pasta filata” (stretched cheeses, including scamorza and caciocavallo) and then expand their offerings. Mozz will also stock Italian groceries and local artisan food items, and serve pizzas and paninis. “But we don’t focus on the pizza part,” Christina hastens to explain. It’s just a way for customers to experience fresh mozzarella in a way they’re most used to. “Because what’s better on a pizza than good cheese?” she asks rhetorically.
An espresso bar will offer wood-roasted Italian coffee the same way it has been for more than half a century. “We work with friends we know who make amazing products, and we share them with everyone here,” says Christina. “We always say, ‘We’re not in the cheese industry, we’re in the education and service industry.’ It’s more about enjoying what we do and why we do it.
The couple say they are grateful to be opening their doors during Newport’s quieter season, as it will give them a chance to build community. Then they’ll launch an online store and start shipping, much to the delight of their longtime customers in Massachusetts.
“We’re also going to be very mindful of our waste and what we use,” says Christina. She and Luca met with a consultant to make sure their packaging minimizes waste. “All of these things are very important to us,” she says, “because at the end of the day, it’s also our community.”
Visit mozznewport.com for more information, or follow Mozz on Instagram at @MozzNewport.