I was fortunate to grow up in a community that was predominantly Italian. The influences were everywhere. The Italian flag waved in most shops and restaurants. Pizza parlors sat on almost every corner. Five star restaurants served only Italian food (as they should). Even the bars had better Italian food than I have found in the best Italian restaurants here in Charlotte. Then there were the summer festivals. Whether it was a city sponsored Italian festival like the ones in Youngstown or Warren or a church sponsored one like the Mount Carmel festival in Niles, the food was amazing.
The Mount Carmel Festival was always my favorite because the food was prepared onsite by volunteers – there were no outside vendors. I remember walking the booths as the smells of delicious Italian treats permeated the air – treats that little old Italian ladies slaved away to prepare in the basement of the church. Fried Italian sausage, pepper, and onion sandwiches. Cavatellis with marinara sauce (homemade is implied for both). Fried smelts. Fried calamari. Italian greens. Pizza (once again homemade is implied). Spinach and potato pies. And lastly, the famed cheese puffs.
It has been six years since I’ve been home for the Mount Carmel Festival. That’s six years that I have been deprived of cheese puffs. Last weekend I found myself back home for a wedding. As Mrs. G. and I were driving to the church, I saw a sign out of the corner of my eye in the window of Belleria Pizza. “Cheese Puffs $2.” I made a mental note to stop on the way home from the church to pick some up for an afternoon snack. (Back home, wedding ceremonies start at 2pm while receptions don’t start until 7pm. A snack would be needed.)
So what’s a cheese puff? Dough, stuffed with cheese, and tossed into a deep fryer. Three simple ingredients, yet so many layers of flavor. And yes, I counted the grease as an ingredient. The mark of a good cheese puff is the oil left on your fingers. Or, in our case, a stain left on the backseat of the rental car from the box. Belleria’s cheese puffs were not that far off from the original either, only bigger. The bite was crunchy as the outside of the dough was fried perfectly crisp. The first flavor to hit you was the sweetness from the fried dough. You are then immediately zapped by salt. The texture then takes a turn as the insdie dough mimics the melted cheese and a string dribbles from your month. This is a two handed dish as one holds the puff while the other is needed to snap off the string and stuff it back into the puff. Your tongue is then overcome with flavors from the sweet dough and the melted cheese.
Here’s where I made a mistake ordering my cheese puffs. Belleria gives customers the option to choose from four different cheeses. My memory had faded over the years and I ordered mozzarella thinking the most Italian cheese was in the original. I was wrong. The original Mount Carmel Cheese Puff used American cheese. While the mozzarella was good, it paled in comparison to American cheese. The flavor of mozzarella is too soft. American cheese adds an extra bitterness that brings the flavor even more alive. Lesson learned for next when I am home for Christmas.
What’s your favorite fare or festival food and where is it from?