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For cheese on restaurant menus, it’s Old World, new tricks

Cheese is a way of life.

This is how Tony Priolo, chef and co-owner of Chicago’s Little Dream, describes his love for cheese. “He has the ability to enhance any dish,” he says.

In addition to Piccolo Sogno, Priolo is co-owner of Nonnina with his business partner and longtime friend, Ciro Longobardo. He has also appeared on numerous television shows including The Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay”.

Cheeses appear in a number of menu items at Piccolo Sogno, which focuses on traditional Italian dishes. He says that one of the only rules of Italian cuisine is to never use cheese in seafood dishes. The rest of the menu is fair game.

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“Anything else can get cheese,” he says. A broad bean appetizer is enlivened by pecorino, a salty, hard cheese not unlike Parmesan but made with sheep’s milk rather than cow’s milk. Most of the pizzas of the Piccolo Sogno are characterized by fior di latte (fresh mozzarella), while the shells of the sachets are stuffed with artichokes and buffalo ricotta.

Priolo says burrata (fresh flakes of mozzarella soaked in cream and surrounded by an outer layer of mozzarella) could become more popular as it pairs so well with seasonal produce. Dishes like a grilled peach salad topped with burrata or olive tapenade and burrata spread on crispy French bread showcase the versatility of the cheese. Drunk cheese (soaked in wine) is another Italian classic making its way onto US menus.

“Black truffle cheese, peppercorn cheeses – all of these are definitely starting to show more,” Priolo says.

Although his cuisine remains rooted in Italian cuisine, Priolo has noticed an increase in the availability of other international cheeses. He says Mexican varieties like queso fresco and Oaxaca cheese are becoming more common, even in restaurants that aren’t necessarily Mexican concepts. Fried halloumi (a Greek staple) is also becoming more popular, he adds.

“Ten or 20 years ago, you couldn’t find these cheeses easily unless you were in a specialty market or in the country the cheese comes from,” he says. “Now, with better and more modern means of transport, cheeses from other cultures are available. You simply couldn’t get legitimate Greek halloumi or feta cheese unless you’re in Greece.

And the demand for cheese is stronger than ever. USDA data shows that between 2009 and 2019, per capita consumption of cheese increased by 19%. And according to market research firm Statista, US customers consumed just under 40 pounds of cheese per capita in 2021, second only to Europe, where consumers eat nearly 45 pounds a year on average.

“There are no doubts. I love cheese. It’s a great piece of a dish, “says Susan Feniger, chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and former TV personality. She is also co-owner of the California-based micro-chain Border Grill.

Together with his business partner Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger opened the first Border Grill in 1985, with a menu featuring regional recipes inspired by home cooks from all over Mexico. Since it debuted 37 years ago, the Border Grill brand has grown into multiple locations, food trucks and a catering business, as well as additional concepts like Socalo and BBQ Mexicana.

For Feniger, cheese is more than an ingredient that adds flavor to a dish. Use cheese as a way to structurally fortify some dishes.

“We will take a mixture of cheeses and melt it on the comal [a flat griddle] to make it crunchy. Then we put the tortilla on top and turn it over, “he says.” Not only does it serve as an additional layer, but it also acts as a barrier for the tortilla so it doesn’t get soaked. ”

Feniger says the recent popularity of dishes like quesabirria (a corn tortilla filled with melted Mexican cheese and stewed meat) has made more obscure, cheese-centric Mexican dishes mainstream. As this beer erupts from regional markets and into the national restaurant scene, she believes that authentic Mexican cheeses will become increasingly popular beyond California and other border states.

“Mexican cheeses are definitely more available than when we first opened Border Grill,” he says. “At one point you could only find these cheeses in Los Angeles, but now they are everywhere.”

In terms of other cheese trends, Feniger predicts that some dishes that have fallen out of favor in recent decades may be poised for a revival.

“You used to see breaded, deep-fried brie on many menus, but it hasn’t been around in a while,” he says. “But I think it’s such a good dish, and it’s comforting. It’s perfect for today’s dining environment where customers are looking for something familiar. ”

Feniger says raclette, an Alpine dish with melted Swiss cheese over potatoes, has a chance to return, especially given its spectacularity. Raclette is regularly prepared at the table, with servers melting the cheese directly from the wheel onto the plate.

“With so many people having used their home for entertainment over the past few years, I think people now want to have that experience,” he says.

Fondue is another dish that Feniger says could return to glory. The once popular menu item hasn’t seen the same demand it once did in the 1960s and 1970s, but a bevy of new cheeses to melt could give it an edge.

“I could imagine [fondue] making a big comeback, “says Feniger.” It’s a great dish. I think you could turn it into something really interesting. I’d love to see it. “