Behind every cheese, there’s a good story waiting to be told. You just have to ask the right people. In this blog series, Amanda will be interviewing cheesemongers from around the country and relaying their most fantastic tales of international travel, in-shop aging, and curious customers. Last time, we hung out with Perry Soulos of Arrowine and Cheese. This week we get to know Joe Ciardullo of Port Jefferson, NY’s C’est Cheese. Read on, and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of our Cheese+ ultimate pairings issue!
There’s a certain kind of cheese shop experience that yields a special kind of joy. It comes from perusing a cheese case well-stocked with sharp cheddars and nutty goudas and choosing your favorite for the sole purpose of melting between bread. While most good cheeses taste best straight up, or perhaps enhanced by a complementary sip of wine or smear of jam, a grilled cheese sandwich is an equally noble fate for artisanal cheeses blessed with the right consistency and butterfat content.
Joe Ciardullo, the man behind the counter at C’est Cheese, knows very well. That’s why he does the work for his customers and whips up delicious grilled cheeses right in the shop. The Port Jefferson cheese shop is part specialty foods retailer and part dine-in restaurant.
With a case boasting 100 to 150 varieties of cheese, Joe is never at a loss for inspiration when dreaming up new recipes.
“A lot of times we just go with combinations that classically work really well together – for example, a blue with something sweet. But sometimes we’ll try something totally new. Just the other day we took halloumi and threw on some pickled red onions and sun-dried tomato pesto and made a grilled cheese out of it. The sweet sun-dried tomato works with the salty halloumi, and [the cheese] doesn’t get gooey, so it’s an interesting grilled cheese texture. It’s crisp on the outside with some chewiness in middle. It’s really fantastic.”Cooking with cheese comes naturally to Joe who, after working a job in concrete, decided to go to culinary school. “I loved the aspect of owning a restaurant but didn’t like the incredibly long hours of a full service restaurant,” he said. “I thought, how can I do this and [keep] it more focused and unique? I combined my interest in cheese with a restaurant-like atmosphere, and came up with this concept.”
Joe took advantage of his sandwich-making expertise at this year’s Cheesemonger Invitational, where contestants compete to construct the “perfect bite.”
“I made an adaptation of one of our menu items,” he said. “It was applewood-smoked bacon, avocado, rosemary aioli, watercress, and Maxx Extra. It was kind of like a one bite cheese BLT.”
Joe chose the raw milk Alpine cheese for a reason. “It’s nutty, beefy, and brothy, some funk going on from the wash. I love the texture – it’s better than the sharper Maxx because it has more firmness to it. Then you throw bacon and rosemary aioli on there, and the fat just adds to the richness of the cheese.”
This is how Joe talks to his customers about the cheeses he loves – with vivid language that evokes every sense. And the list of his favorite cheeses is long and ever-changing.
“I really love Midnight Moon and Humboldt Fog, he began. “I love goat’s milk and those are my goat’s milk favorites. Also Epoisses – I love washed rinds so much. Then there’s Tobasi, and I love Willoughby. Anything [Jasper Hill Farms touches] is gold.”
Joe explained how many of his favorite cheeses vary season to season, and he’s looking forward to autumn. Not only for the variation in cheese flavor, but for the return on his local clientele.
“[Port Jefferson] is a very touristy town, so the clientele is different from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I don’t see as many familiar faces” he explained. “I can’t wait for fall to see all my regulars again.”
Joe won his customers over from the get-go with his friendly, patient demeanor.
“I try to just see where they are by asking beginner questions. If they’re looking for something specific, I encourage them to branch off. If they don’t know what they want, I tell them what I like and just start giving them samples. People like getting stuff for free, and it opens up a world of [cheeses] they might like.”
“I love it when people say they don’t like something specific, like they don’t like blues or goat cheeses,” he explained. “I like to challenge myself and figure out why they don’t like it. I’ll give them Midnight Moon and they’re like, ‘this is delicious!’ If they don’t like blues, I’ll give them Cambozola. Something creamy and not too advanced.”
Converting former haters into blue-enthusiasts is all in a day’s work for Joe. “Those people with open minds are my favorite to talk to. We love food here and we’re trying to give people a pleasant food experience.”Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Joe Ciardullo
If you could design a grilled cheese for C’est Cheese’s menu, what would be on it? Tell us in the comments section, and you could win a copy of our Cheese+ pairing issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Monday, September 22, 2014 to be eligible to win. Good luck!