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Image: Megha Tejpal

As far as I'm concerned, cheese is the star ingredient of every season, every time of the year. Stuffed in crust, melted in tacos, sprinkled over pastas or smothering casseroles, cheese is about as versatile as an ingredient can get. Growing up, many of us may have learned all we could about the Kraft varieties next to the lunch meat section in the grocery store, but for many people—myself included—it isn't until college or later when first realize there is a whole new world of fancy cheese out there, cheeses that pair with more than just spirals or shells.

This week, we'll focus on a cheese that's not only a star ingredient in many Italian dishes but counts as a star dish all on its own: burrata. It's increasingly appearing on antipasto and appetizer sections on menus across town, but what exactly is burrata? Is it a stinky cheese? Is it very rich? Let's take a look at what sets burrata apart from the rest.

Though fresh mozzarella and buratta look almost identical, they differ in taste, texture and construction. Burrata is a semi-soft Italian cheese with a shell made from fresh mozzarella. The inside of that hollow pouch is filled with more mozzarella that's been blended with fresh cream until soft and oozy. The buttery goodness inside a ball of burrata ("burrata" translates to "buttery" in Italian) compares to few things in life, and the flavor is only enhanced when enjoyed with a nice bottle of wine. Like many fine cheeses, burrata can be eaten at room temperature making it a hit for wine and cheese parties or long romantic dinners. And while some may disagree that a round, ball of creamy cheese may be just about the most unromantic thing to indulge in over dinner, I completely disagree—especially if you are at the right restaurant.

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Check out the chandelier...

Situated on Shepherd Drive between Washington Avenue and the Katy Freeway, the newest location of casual Italian eatery Il Mascalzone aims to offer Houstonians an authentic Italian dining experience with a flair for the modern. The wide open dining space, complete with wine room and bar, invites guests to indulge in hand-tossed pizzas and oh-so-saucy pastas made with fresh, organic ingredients.

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The restaurant's signature mascalzone: half pizza, half calzone.

Unlike many of the Italian restaurant concepts in Houston, Il Mascalzone's additional locations include one in London (and as far as I know, Il Mascalzone across the pond hasn't yet succumbed to the bizarre British-Italian instant coffee in spag bol trend). Bold menu items at Il Mascalzone range from the carpaccio di manzo, a thinly-sliced steamed octopus carpaccio, to the risotto mantecato topped with braised veal shank. A long list of mouth-watering pizzas are always a popular option, with a handful of vegetarian options to choose from as well.

Though the menu offers a variety of delicious selections, the burrata is a must whether you're there for a glass of wine after work or a full blown multi-course dinner with la famiglia. The buttery cheese is by far one of the best I have experienced in Houston thus far, with a robust flavor and size. It makes for a nice portion to share, especially when paired with your favorite wine. Furthermore, plated with a trio of herbs, oils, and zesty sauce, Il Mascalzone leaves it up to you as to how bold of a journey you want to undertake with this particular cheese. Served with crispy, crumbly bread, the simple dish is the perfect precursor to an authentic Italian meal.

Open for lunch, dinner and even weekend brunch, Mascalzone is becoming a popular spot among the Washington Avenue and Heights crowd with its diverse menu and eclectic vibe. Casual and yet still charming in that warm, welcoming Italian way, the burrata won't be the only thing you'll be bragging about. (Forgive me, but it ain't easy being cheesy.)

Il Mascalzone, 1500 Shepherd Dr., 713-862-9700, ilmascalzone.com/usa

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