If you have had the pleasure of tearing into the mozzarella with pickled tomatoes at Mat Bar, or the egg yolk ravioli with ricotta at the Marshall House Restaurant, or the scamorza pizza at Coocoo’s Nest, then you are already familiar with the handiwork of fromagère Pasquale Giannico, better known as Lino.
Icelandic dairy is a cut above the rest, but Icelandic cheese, barring skyr (yes, it is a cheese!) seldom raises the bar (no, goðost and skólaostur do not count). Locally produced artisanal cheese is practically unheard of, but thanks to the efforts of one resolute man—Lino—the tradition of slow, handmade, small-batch cheese production is now a reality in Iceland.
I had to know more, and sat down for a chat with Lino and his lovely wife Kristin at their cheese lab, where Lino makes fresh mozzarella, bocconcini, ricotta, ricotta salata and scamorza.
Lino is from Bari, Puglia; a region in southern Italy known for its olive oil, orecchiette (“little ear”) pasta, sparkling beaches, and of course, fresh cheese. “I had this idea twenty years ago when I came to Iceland,’’ says Lino. “There was no mozzarella here. Where I grew up, there are several small artisanal ‘casaro’—dairy producers. Just across the street from my home there is a ‘caseficio’ which I frequently visited as a child, observing the making of fresh cheese, and that inspired the passion in me for this path.”
That dream was finally realized in late 2016, when with a little saved-up money and determination, he set to work to tame Icelandic milk.
Cheesemaking is a delicate alchemy of ingredients and skill of the cheesemaker. Making Italian cheese from Icelandic milk, however, proved to be easier said than done. “To begin with, it took some time to get to know the quality of the Icelandic milk,” he says, “which, by the way, is excellent. It is fattier than Italian cow’s milk, and the protein structure is different, so I had to really take time to learn to work with it. It is a constant work in progress.”
That difference is certainly palpable—the bocconcini he offered us to taste was certainly the best little bite of squishiness outside of Italy on these shores. Hand-rolled, and bound into little pillows, the Icelandic milk lends it a fatty creaminess one normally associates with buffalo milk.
“Cheesemaking is fundamentally about the milk, temperature, and time it takes for the cheese curds to coagulate,” says Lino. “Time is an ingredient. Everything has to be precise. This is not industrial cheese, where you put milk into machine and out comes mozzarella.”
Lino is a stickler for tradition and doesn’t believe in diluting the essence of authentic Italian cheese. “I want to continue making fresh cheese of good quality based on the Italian tradition and the excellent raw material which is the Icelandic milk,” he says. “My dream would be in the future to participate with my products in an international cheese festival.”
It might be a while before we see Lino’s artisanal cheese on store shelves: he is a one-man army for now, and doesn’t want to compromise his cheese with preservatives to lengthen its shelf life. However, one can feast on his fruits of labour at Jamie’s Italian, Marshall, Mat Bar and several other restaurants.