Burrata artist at work – In the hands of a trained chef, mozzarella and cream become a thing of beauty

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

20151208_Burratta.  Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

So, there are oyster bars and sushi bars, wine bars and salad bars.

Now at the recently opened Brick + Wood restaurant in Fairfield center, you can belly up to a burrata bar. Or more precisely, you can take a seat at the marble-topped dining counter and watch your burrata made to order.

Co-owner Clara Cavalli believes hers is the only eatery in the area that approaches burrata that way, making it, as she puts it, “on the spot. We stretch it and pull it right in front of the customer.”

But wait, what is burrata exactly? One international newspaper has called it “the new luxury mozzarella,” and reached for the adjective “unctuous” to describe its taste and texture.

Cavalli wouldn’t disagree, but if burrata begins with cow’s milk like all mozzarella does, it shouldn’t be mistaken for the pale mozzarella melted on pizza or the softer, whiter, so-called fresh mozzarella often served sliced with tomatoes.

Burrata is a marriage of mozzarellas, plural, and it comes in a ball or loaf, something like a dumpling, but bigger. The outer cheese layer is close to the familiar, elastic mozzarella. The surprise is the inner core, made from shreds of mozzarella mixed with cream.

That core, or filling, is called “stracciatella,” Italian for “little rags.” Cavalli said the exact ingredients or preparation method used for the stracciatella at Brick + Wood is proprietary. But she was happy one recent morning to have chef Jes Bengtson demonstrate how burrata is not so much made as fashioned.

First Bengtson places a wad of fresh mozzarella curd in a tub of warm, salted water to make it malleable. Then she begins kneading it and stretching it on a long wooden paddle. The cheese glistens, almost like an off-white potter’s clay. The trick is speed.

“If you don’t do it fast enough, it will fall apart on you,” Bengtson explains, comparing the mozzarella to wet paper that can easily tear.

Next Bengtson places a scoop of the stracciatella on the disc of cheese and begins a process of folding, twisting and squeezing. Her technique is reminiscent of a vaudeville balloon artist, the way she uses both hands to deftly shape the cheese. One moment, she looks like she’s wringing a cheesy chicken’s neck, the next she’s magically holding a shiny globe.

The globe, about the size of a baseball, is then immersed in room temperature water so its shape can set. The immersion is brief and the globe is spooned directly onto a plate. Nothing has been added to the burrata itself. But it is served as a platter, that morning surrounded by red grapes, slices of persimmon, pomegranate, prosciutto and crustini from the restaurant’s wood-fired pizza oven. For a final flourish, Bengtson drizzles a pomegranate reduction over the burrata, so dark and thick it could be chocolate syrup.

Bengtson, who grew up in Westerly, R.I., worked until recently at the Granola Bar (yes, another bar) in Westport. She switched to Brick + Wood after making a hit at one of the restaurant’s guest chef nights with a pizza of cured salmon, carmelized leeks, dill and caper oil. She is young and has a chef’s seemingly requisite tattoos, including on her upper arm lyrics from a Woody Guthrie song.

Bengtson says she never made burrata before coming to Brick + Wood. “It takes a really long time to learn,” she says. “I did a lot of watching. You can’t do it in a step-by-step process. The sealing of it is the hardest part. It happens very fast, in seconds.”

But learn it she did. One memorable comment about her new-found talent came when she was on call with the Brick + Wood food truck that caters to home parties. A woman approached her who had dined at the restaurant and still was savoring her first taste. “I really want to bathe in your burrata,” the diner gushed.

 

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

Fresh mozzarella made by Chef Jess Bengston of Brick and Wood in Fairfield. David Gunn / For Hearst Media Group

Cavalli’s story is that she grew up in Trumbull and married Paolo, who grew up in Fairfield, and whose family owned Ponte Vecchio Trattoria, the restaurant previously at the Brick + Wood location. But they did not inherit the business. Instead she worked as an art director and Paolo worked for General Electric, and was transferred to the Dallas area.

They were there a few years, she said, when they decided Texans needed better pizza. So they opened first one, then another Cavalli pizza restaurant and made the Zagat best Dallas pizza list. They took over the Ponte Vecchio space about a year ago. Their pizza oven came from Italy, as does burrata. It supposedly originated in southern regions a century ago, but never became popular because of its short shelf-life.

Besides six different dishes from its mozzarella and burrata bar, Brick + Wood on the Post Road also serves salads, Neopolitan street food, pizza and (at lunch only) panini. The basic burrata plate is $14.

Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist.