Paula Lambert’s first taste of fresh Italian mozzarella was love at first bite. At the time, Lambert was a college student studying art history and the Italian language in Perugia. “I could not believe fresh mozzarella was really cheese. It tasted unlike anything I had ever had before,” shared the Texas native.
Growing up in Ft. Worth, Lambert’s family traveled to New Orleans to dine at its famed restaurants, and she said her grandmother made a memorable vegetable soup from her garden. But the cheese was another thing. In the 1960s and ‘70s, most consumers knew cheese as a mass-produced, pasteurized food, usually orange or yellow.
After finishing college, Lambert returned to Italy to live for a time. “There was a cheese factory owned by Mauro Brufani in Umbria that made fresh mozzarella. I would go there the day it was made. After returning to the United States, Lambert decided to open her own factory to make handmade mozzarella. She asked Brufani if she could apprentice with him, and he generously agreed.
Still, there is much to learn about making handmade cheese in the USA where regulations are stringent. There were hurdles, and Lambert admits she learned on the job. She reached out to Giovanni Marchese, a cheese professor in Northern Italy, who agreed to come to Dallas to help her. Lambert said, “When I started, I did not even know what pasteurization was. I had to learn it all from people I met along the way.”
That was 1982. Initially, sales were less than robust. She went door to door to visit retailers who eye-rolled about selling just ten balls of handmade mozzarella. So, Lambert refocused her selling strategy on restaurants.
“I decided if I could sell to chefs in restaurants, customers would try the cheese and ask where it would come from. That is how I built my business. The restaurants helped me educate the customers. Our first big break was when Mansion on Turtle Creek became a customer. The word ‘artisanal’ was not even in our vocabulary. At first, we called it specialty cheese,” she said.
The onset of the American culinary revolution was a game-changer. Chefs like Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Robert Del Grande, Mark Miller, and John Sedlar were making waves throughout the southwest. They supported Lambert, and – as expected- their customers wanted the cheeses. As interest and demand grew, Lambert expanded her selections, now totaling 40 SKUS- all still handmade. Foodservice remains a priority, but Lambert also has a robust online business selling direct to consumers and also hosts cooking classes and food-focused trips to Italy, Greece, and elsewhere.
Now celebrating 40 years, Mozzarella Company produces 100,000 pounds of handmade cheeses. She has a team of 15 employees, mainly women, and two have been with the company 35 years. “Women work well with their hands and have fine motor skills needed to make handmade cheeses which can take hours. I trained all the people myself,” Lambert said.
A typical workday starts when the fresh milk arrives from the local dairy farms, often as early as two o’clock in the morning. “We received the milk, pump and pasteurize it, add cultures and rennet. The only equipment is a pump. Our mozzarella alone can take six hours to make.”
The Mozzarella Company makes several styles of mozzarella including three kinds of burrata alone: Burrata Stracciatella, Burrata Con Crema (filled with crème fraiche), and Burrata of Mozzarella (filled with butter and mascarpone). There are also various sizes of mozzarella balls, smoked mozzarella, and mozzarella rolls filled with either green olives, basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeño, or prosciutto.
Popular sellers (and award winners) include Smoked Scamorza, a milder semi-soft cheese lightly smoked over Texas pecan shells; Hoja Santa, small goat cheese rounds wrapped with aromatic Mexican hoja santa leaves that impart essences of sassafras and mint; and Deep Ellum Blue, an earthy cow’s milk, aged six weeks with a striking edible blue exterior. Naturally, being in Texas, one can also find several handmade Mexican kinds of cheese including queso Blanco, queso Oaxaca and “Tex-Mex” cheeses like Caciotta La Cocina, a savory “Monterey Jack” cheese laced with chiles and jalapenos, and Dolce Habañero, a creamy cow’s milk cheese flavored with apricots and fresh habanero.
Lambert’s work has gained her national recognition including hundreds of awards and accolades. She is the author of The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Guide (2000) and Cheese, Glorious Cheese! (2007). She has been called a “pioneer in American cheesemaking; in 2022 Food & Wine Magazine named Mozzarella Company among the Top 50 Cheese Factories in the United States, the latter which she shared is one of her greatest honors.