For Salvatore Pisani of Jersey Artisan Co. in East Hanover, NJ, food is about more than just nourishment—it’s what life revolves around. Being a first-generation American, with his father from Calabria and mother from Greece, Pisani grew up eating and making the regional dishes his family brought with them over to the States. He developed an infatuation for Italian cooking early on, and those food memories have, quite frankly, never gone away. It started with his father’s garden and cellar—the home-cooked meals—and extended into him learning the art of cheese-making from an uncle. All of this passion and knowledge eventually boiled over, budding into the beginnings of a business. Pisani started Jersey Artisan Co. earlier this year and with it, he brings years of cheese-making experience, fresh-baked breads, ferments, pastas and other artisanal foods. What’s more, is that Jersey Artisan Co. is an homage to Pisani’s roots, building onto the foundation started by his family and passed down to him.
Sal Pisani began making cheese eight years ago. In that time, he has nearly perfected the art of ricotta, mozzarella, primo sale (a creamy, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese) and more. His ricotta and mozzarella-making process is especially intriguing. Pisani features the milk from Jersey cows from Spring Run Dairy in Pittstown, NJ. When making cheese, choosing a good milk to start with is paramount as it is the main ingredient. Pisani explained to me that he settled on this product not only because it was local, but also because the milk from this breed of cow is closest in fat percentage to that of a water buffalo—whose fat-rich milk is famously used to make DOP buffalo mozzarella found in Campania, which is revered for its fresh flavor and creamy texture.
The Cheese-Making Process
Along with Abbie Bannon, Jersey Artisan Co.’s self-taught cheese maker, Spring Run Dairy milk is lightly heated before a small amount of rennet is added—a naturally-occurring enzyme used for cheese-making. The rennet helps to separate the milk into two distinct parts: Curds and whey. The curds are then stretched and formed with hot water and salt for flavor, becoming one mass of cheese that is then formed into individual mozzarella balls. The use of high-quality dairy is incredibly apparent within the first bite. The mozzarella is soft, with a slight salinity and plenty of fresh milk flavor. If you’re lucky enough, the cheese might still be warm, lending what is undoubtedly one of life’s greatest eating experiences.
As far as the whey goes, Pisani and Bannon use it to make ricotta the old-school way. Plenty of commercialized, mass-produced ricotta is now made with just milk, which is heated and curdled using an acidic agent to aid the process; however, using whey primarily as the base is how ricotta is traditionally done. Ricotta directly translates to “re-cooked” in Italian, which Pisani explained to me as the literal process of an authentic version—milk is cooked and separated into curds and whey, and the whey is then re-cooked into ricotta. Simple enough. They gently heat the whey, along with a small amount of fresh milk for flavor and yield, until the curds rise and settle at the top. After the curds are defined, the cheese is strained into cheese baskets where the ricotta is allowed to form.
Jersey Artisan Co.’s ricotta is special. It is creamy and fresh, with a defined curd structure, making for the perfect spread on a piece of crusty bread, a great companion to fresh fruit and honey, or as I enjoyed it: Straight from a spoon.
In addition to fresh ricotta and mozzarella, Jersey Artisan Co. produces aged cheeses as well. One in particular, the primo sale, is made from aging curds into a semi-hard cheese that is mild and slightly bouncy in texture. The Spring Run Dairy milk is also used to make flavored labneh, scamorza, mascarpone and feta—one of Bannon’s latest experiments.
All of Jersey Artisan’s cheeses exemplify the importance of focusing on locally-produced ingredients. Whether it be produce, dairy or meat, using a local ingredient means infusing a product with the terroir of a region. When something like cheese features a primary ingredient (milk), why wouldn’t you want to use the best possible option you can find? Pisani tested various milks and studied how they react. He landed on Spring Run Dairy because it’s the best-fit option for his operation. Plain and simple.
Cheese and dairy are just one part of Jersey Artisan Co., though. Head baker, Natalie Leto-Ryan spearheads the bread and baked goods department for the East Hanover spot. Her focus is naturally-leavened breads, some of which even utilize leftover whey as a fermentation agent. Fresh loaves of ciabatta, focaccia and whey-laced sourdough line the shelves. Guests can come in for a fresh loaf of bread and whole-sale options are available for businesses to use (A larger space for whole-sale cheese production is also on the way). The ciabatta, in particular, features a crusty outside and a moist interior that is laden with pockets of air. The dough’s profound structure is thanks to a five-year-old starter that Leto-Ryan brought with her to Jersey Artisan Co.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop there. Every ingredient in Leto-Ryan’s bread has been tested through a process of trial and error—even down to the water she uses to make the dough. Rather than opting for tap water or even bottled water, Leto-Ryan uses natural spring water from Stokes State Forest, which she collects herself several times a week. The mineral-rich water acts as food for yeast to feed off of. Because the yeast is naturally-derived, this helps to create a remarkable product.
Fresh Pasta, Prepared Goods and More
Beyond breads are stuffed pastas like the cacio e pepe agnolotti, long pastas and prepared goods like arancini that can be eaten there no place to eat in our location. Only take home and enjoy or taken home to reheat for dinner. Pisani revealed to me that extruded pastas like rigatoni and spaghetti are in the works. The team is also always coming up with new ideas to fill the case with. One recent addition is a lineup of house-made pickles using—you guessed it—whey as the fermentation agent. Garlic dill pickles, fermented fennel beets and Tropea onions are just some of the pickles that Jersey Artisan Co. is dishing out. Not only are they delicious and naturally probiotic, but they also mitigate waste by creating another clever use for the excess of whey that Jersey Artisan Co. finds themselves with.
For dessert, we have ricotta pie—a house-made square cheesecake using their own ricotta and whatever flavor entices them for the week. I tried a dark chocolate-laced ricotta cake that was one of the better desserts I’ve had in a minute. I enjoyed a slice for breakfast each day until it was gone, too.
Jersey Artisan Co.
Jersey Artisan Co. is a breath of fresh air. Owner Sal Pisani’s commitment to high-quality products using the best-of-the-best in terms of local ingredients sets it apart from most specialty shops in the area. Along with head cheesemaker Abbie Bannon and house-baker Natalie Leto-Ryan, the small team is dishing out some of the best products you’ll find in North Jersey. With plenty of wholesale ideas in the works, I predict it won’t be long until we see many of our favorite restaurants and delis showcasing Jersey Artisan Co. products. I, for one, can’t wait.
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About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.