Antonelli’s of Austin: An Encomium to Cheese, and to John Antonelli

Creamy, hard, or semi-soft; pungent, piquant, or sweet; white, yellow, or speckled; Italian, American, or Swiss: Cheese, how varied is your aspect! Divine and noble in origin, Aristaeus (sire of Apollo) gave you to humanity for our benefit! No respecter of borders, every nation and people adapt you to their unique environs and purposes. You can be the epitome of simplicity, or of elegance; your presence is welcomed at picnics, and indulged in at banquets. At times the embodiment of subtlety, at times the exemplar of boldness, you can play a supporting role in lasagna, or a starring role in a blue cheese, pear, and arugula salad. You spread your charm across courses: your presence enhances appetizers and dinners, as well as desserts. You are a friendly companion to beer: an intimate companion to wine. Whether you accompany chips, bake into a cake, or stand alone, Cheese, you are the perfect food.

Ah, cheese! Cheese really does make every dish better, and thankfully we in the United States are blessed to have access to more varieties of cheese than ever before. Even the Super Walmarts of the land offer a limited selection of cheeses once found only in specialty stores. To find the very best selection of the still less-common fine cheeses, however, one must seek out a store that specializes in cheese. If one is lucky, she will find just such a cheese shop, complete with an expert cheesemonger on staff, within her very own city. People of Austin are among just such fortunate people! On the narrow road of Duval St in an older part of Austin, surrounded and shaded by lovely, lush, leafy trees, stands Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. The shop is located in the Hyde Park area of Austin, one of the best, most excellent parts of Austin. The genuine unique, quaint, individualistic aura that Austin exuded over thirty years ago when Phil and I still lived there has given way to a less sincere, colder, conformist, and modern ambience (just WHO approved that horrible, bluish, glassy Gothic-city-ish downtown Frost Bank building, anyway?). Most of Austin’s former laid-back, lackadaisical, be and let-be attitude now mostly exists South of Town Lake (Yes, Town Lake ! NEVER Lady Bird Lake! Town Lake forever! And please: DO keep Austin weird!). Hyde Park, however, like South Austin, is one pocket in the city that manages to maintain some of that old Austin feel. It is the perfect setting for Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, for the shop is certainly genuine and unique. John and Kendall Antonelli have their story on their website, but the two opened their dream cheese store to share their passion for cheese with other like-minded people.

No one is more like-minded with the Antonelli’s than my daughter and I! We absolutely love cheese; we eat it every day, in some form or another. We plan entire meals based on cheese as the main ingredient. Only one food, chocolate, rivals our love for cheese (The perfect food, naturally, is one that combines chocolate and cheese!). Thus, on this chrystaline jewel of a spring day, my mother, my daughter, and I introduced my grandsons to some of the finer things of life by taking them with us on our much-anticipated field trip to Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. The object of our quest was to find the perfect cheese, or cheeses, to pair with our gluten-free almond scones and strawberry-lavender jam. We were delighted to find such a charming store, with such a helpful person behind the counter.

The store itself is small, but its shelves and cases are filled with delicacies – in addition to amazing cheeses and flavorful charcuterie – that help to smooth the rough edges of life. The Antonelli’s stock such sumptuous fare as Houston area Blue Heron Farm’s Bourbon Cajeta (goat milk caramel), Vermont Creamery cultured butter, and Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel, in addition to an assortment of fine chocolate, crafted beer, and wine. This particular day, John was behind the counter; I had nothing particular in mind when I entered the store, but John was patient and generous with his time as he gave us samples of the cheeses he suggested as pairings for our scones and jam. He even had some strawberry jam on hand that he let us sample with the cheese, so that we could see how the various cheeses and jam would complement each other. He patiently and expertly explained the character of each cheese we sampled. In the end, we decided upon four different cheeses suggested by John, as well as some cultured butter and some salami. John even let my then-sixteen month old grandson sample the cheese and charcuterie (some of which, as a visible and material editorial statement, my grandson spit out – but he has many years yet to develop the delicate sensibility that will enable him to make the distinction in quality between Amy’s organic pizza rolls and quality goat cheese). John is a kind and friendly (young!) man whose passion for cheese seems to be matched by a passion for creating pleasant experiences for others. He even worked with us to make sure we avoided any gluten-containing products. Our interaction with him added depth to our experiences that day.

By far the unanimous favorite of the four among my family members was the Gioia Burrata. Burrata is a mozzarella cheese that’s stuffed with, well, itself! To make burrata cheese, the cheese makers shape the mozzarella into a pocket. Then they use the curds left over from the cheese-making and stuff the curds, along with cream, into the pocket of the mozzarella, and then pack the cheese into a ball shape. Burrata, in Italian, means buttered, and this name perfectly suits a cheese so creamy, rich, and oh so luscious!

We also chose Tomme Crayeuse, which is a relatively new cheese, having appeared on the market in the late nineties. This cheese was our second favorite. It is a semi-soft cheese made from cow’s milk. It’s a bit creamy, but near the center has a texture that some people might refer to as chalky (in fact, crayeuse is French for chalky). It has a bit of a mildly tart flavor that paired well with the sweetness of the strawberry-lavender jam.

The Pantaleo we chose is a semi-hard goat cheese from the island of Sardinia. This cheese has a slightly salty taste that, combined with the jam, gave us a subtle hint of that pleasant salty-sweet combination that’s so enjoyable in so many foods (kettle corn, salted caramels, etc). My mother and my grandson Benjamin did not enjoy this particular cheese, but goat cheese is not to everyone’s liking. It proves to be too strong for some people’s taste. I enjoyed it somewhat, but not nearly as much as my daughter Elizabeth enjoyed it.

Pecorino di Fossa is the fourth cheese we chose to eat with our jam and scones. This cheese is made from sheep’s milk, and aged in underground. It is a rather crumbly cheese, but it has a slightly musty flavor that made the cheese a nice partner for the jam and scones.

Although Antonelli’s stocks delicious, high-quality chocolate, we somehow neglected to buy some when we bought the cheese (perhaps because we were so excited about getting home with our treasures?)! Nothing is more important than ending a luxurious, delicious repast with nice chocolate! As we were reaching our fill of scones and cheese, we realized our great mistake; fortunately, Elizabeth keeps a store of quality dark chocolate in her pantry: we had closure, after all (she also came through by acting as photographer for the day – the pictures in this post are her artistry)!  We will make another pilgrimage to Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, soon, and next time we will not forget the chocolate!

And so ended a magnificent spring day in Austin: time spent with precious loved ones while eating strawberry jam, scones, and exquisite cheese.

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