Serve A Little Cheese On The Side

""We all know that a plethora of cheeses can be used on pizzas, from Gorgonzola-and-pear pies to a classic cheese slice with whole-milk mozzarella. However, how are you using one of your pizzeria’s main ingredients in other parts of the menu? Cheeses can be effectively incorporated in virtually every dish, from desserts (think a ricotta cheesecake or mascarpone-layered tiramisu) to appetizers to salads to sandwiches. Chances are, you already use cheese in the obvious ways, but we spoke to experts in the cheese industry to further determine how you can go about using cheeses to diversify your offerings and set yourself apart from the competition.

Va-Va-Versatile

Salads are a great platform for cheeses, as they add richness and depth of flavor that can complement the crisp greens or pasta that forms the basis of the dish. “Generally, people want to begin a meal with a salad or use them as a side dish, and cheese is a very versatile topping for salad,” says Christine Hyatt, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based vice president of the American Cheese Society and owner of Cheese Chick. “You want to choose a cheese that will meld with the flavors in the salad but also stand out enough to taste it.” She recommends that stronger-flavor cheese, such as blue, feta or Gorgonzola, are ideal in salads, while fresh goat cheese goes well with vegetable salads or tomato-and-cucumber blends.

“There is no limit to how cheese can be applied for salads; because these are generally served cold, a Monterey Jack cheese is a great addition, since it has an open texture and will absorb the dressing or marinade,” notes Mike Levy, foodservice consultant for the California Milk Advisory Board, based in San Francisco. “Blue cheese plays well off either a tart (such as balsamic dressing) or sweet (raspberry vinaigrette) flavor, while a Caprese salad is so easy and so popular—just tomatoes, fresh mozzarella or bocconcini, oil and balsamic, and salt and pepper—voila!” Obviously, whether you use cheese as a main ingredient in the salad (such as the Caprese) or merely as an add-on, you can find a cheese to suit any flavor or texture profile.

Appetizers often incorporate cheese, as many pizzeria owners can attest to. You may already offer the basic fried mozzarella, for example, but you can take your cheese-based appetizers in a lot of new directions so that you’re not simply offering the same starters as the pizzeria around the corner. “The possibilities are endless for appetizers that incorporate cheese,” explains Marilyn Wilkinson, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board in Madison, Wisconsin. “Here are a few ideas: cheese-topped crostini, cheese-stuffed olives or figs, cheese curds in marinara sauce, spinach or artichoke dips and spreads, arancine (rice balls), polenta bites, or cheesy breadsticks.”

Cheese plates in particular are great to offer in a sit-down environment because they can be offered as either an appetizer or a dessert. “Cheese plates are great to add a more upscale image to the restaurant, and they encourage people to drink wine or beer as a pairing,” notes Hyatt. “Pick out two to five styles of cheese that use different types of milk (goat, cow, sheep, etc.) and incorporate different flavors, textures and aromas.” When building your cheese plate, suggests Levy, cheeses should be compiled in a thoughtful way, with ranges from hard to soft and mild to strong; honey, sauce or jam can be served as an accompaniment.

One pizzeria owner has even found success by allowing customers to build their own cheese plates. “My restaurant, Pizza Volante (pizzavolantemiami.com), features a mozzarella bar and serves various types of our mozzarella with classic accompaniments,” says owner and chef Jonathan Eismann. “This allows guests to choose their own plate; they’re able to choose from fresh buffalo mozzarella, burrata or one of our locally made cow-milk varieties. Having a fresh cheese bar like our mozzarella bar is a great way to display a variety of cheeses in an attractive and interactive setting.”