To the American ear, an Italian accent adds a suave, breezy air and a devil-may-care attitude. But Alex Liberati, founder of Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers at 2403 Champa Street, doesn't adhere to the stereotype. He's meticulous, erudite, almost nerdy (in a good-humored way) — especially when it comes to food and drink.
Get the restaurateur started on his beers (all of which are grape-barley hybrids), and he'll talk for hours about the difficulty of harnessing the tannins in cabernet sauvignon grapes so that they don't ruin a batch of his Dictum Factum stout. If you want to understand the regional differences in Italian breads, pasta shapes or dry-cured sausages (many made in-house by chef Marta Biasotti and baker Federica Ansani), ask Alex Liberati. He can fill you in on every minute detail without ever becoming boring or pedantic; you'll be on the edge of your seat as he describes the history of why Tuscan bread has no salt.
Liberati's latest culinary obsession is cheese, one of many artisan products taken very seriously in his home country. But he doesn't want to just sell cheese to his restaurant customers: He wants to make it. And he wants to help other Denver restaurateurs and chefs learn how to make cheese, too.
Last month, Liberati brought in cheesemaker Paolo Bartolomucci from Italy's Accademia Italiana del Latte (the Italian Academy of Milk) so that he could share techniques and recipes for making fresh Italian cheeses in a restaurant setting. He also held a free seminar attended by about fifty members of the Denver restaurant industry.
Before Bartolomucci arrived in Denver, Liberati was already on the hunt for the most important ingredient in cheese: milk. He was looking for milk from local cows with pasture access, since grazing on grass and other naturally growing plants adds flavor and nutrients to milk. The milk must also be treated properly so that the proteins that give mozzarella and other cheeses their stretch aren't destroyed. Gentle pasteurization is the key; even a few degrees over the optimum temperature or a few seconds too long at that temperature will result in cheese curd that's mealy or crumbly, not smooth and stretchy. "Milk pasteurization is not consistent, even within one company," he says he discovered, but he continued the search until he found an organic, lightly pasteurized product with which he was satisfied.
Once Liberati found the right milk, he ran the numbers to make sure that his restaurant could make cheese at a cost cheaper than importing Italian products. Then he called in Bartolomucci so the expert could teach him the finer points of creating curd for several different kinds of cheese, and turning that curd into finished products.
Making fresh cheese is an easy proposition on its surface: An acidic or enzymatic agent is added to milk warmed to a specific temperature; the liquid whey separates from the solid curd, which is pressed or left to drain; and the result is cheese. The type of agent used to separate the curds and whey (lemon juice, citric acid, bacterial cultures, rennet or a combination of those) determines the texture and protein structure of the whey, the flavor and the kind of cheese that results.
Most Italian restaurants in the U.S. either purchase fresh mozzarella floating in tubs of water or they buy curd from a dairy and stretch their own mozzarella by submerging the curd in hot water until it becomes pliable. But Liberati will be making its own curd. Bartolomucci, with Liberati translating, explains that fresh mozzarella is made in different ways in various parts of Italy. In northern Italy, citric acid is used to create the curd, resulting in a "sweeter, milkier" cheese. But in central Italy (including Rome, where Liberati is from), bacterial fermentation creates the acidity. The result is a little more sour and funky, a taste that Liberati says raised eyebrows among chefs at his seminar.
A sample proffered by Bartolomucci that had been made earlier that day in the restaurant's kitchen does have a more distinctive flavor than the bland white spheres found in grocery-store cheese cases. The two note that mozzarella made this way can be kept longer under refrigeration, so a restaurant can stash a batch on a Monday and sell it all week.
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Italian fresh cheeses include the well-known mozzarella and ricotta, as well as robbiola, cacia ricotta, primo sale, crescenza and its close cousin, stracchino, to name a few. "We will eventually make all of these in-house," Liberati notes.
The restaurateur provides samples of each of these, as well as fresh yogurt (Bartolomucci has won the top prize in Italy three years in a row for his yogurt). There's also a firm primo sale freckled with red chile flakes, and another cheese marbled with imperial stout. Liberati is in the process of procuring deli cases so that he can display the upcoming dairy products, as well as house-cured sausage and other products that will adorn salumi platters. Look for them — and ask for perfect beer pairings — later this spring.
Liberati moved to Denver more than three years ago to plan and open the brewery-restaurant, and says he immediately noticed the sense of community among chefs and restaurateurs in the city. Sharing knowledge and information was a big part of what he observed, so he wanted to become a part of that network. The cheese seminar was just a part of that; he's also collaborated with other breweries on beer projects and will gladly talk anyone's ear off about all subjects Italian over bocce and beers on his restaurant's patio — which just opened on April 5, complete with an Italian fountain bubbling in the center.
Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers is open from 3:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Call 303-862-5652 or visit the restaurant's website for reservations and details.