Guiseppe (Sal) Salzarulo left Lioni at the age of 18 for the U.S. and started working in his brother’s local pork store in Brooklyn. Even though the mozzarella business had been in his family for five generations, he didn’t come with the intention of making fresh mozzarella and selling it.
But that all changed when he went to sell imported pasta to retailers in the New York City area and tasted what passed for mozzarella in this country. “I said, ‘People call this mozzarella?’ I knew I could make it better,” says the owner and president of Lioni Latticini Inc.
So Salzarulo started his own cheese-making company in Brooklyn in 1981 with his nephew and partner Salvatore. It grew from his garage making about 100 pounds of mozzarella per week to a business that now produces 60,000 pounds of mozzarella every week (or about 15 million pounds a year) in a 100,000 square foot facility in Union, N.J. The company also has a 2,000 square foot wholesale warehouse in Brooklyn.
“I used to make it at dinnertime, small portions, to make the people taste,” he says. “It was completely different from anyone else’s.”
That’s because the company pays such attention to detail in every step of production, says Lori Church, director of sales and marketing. “From selecting the freshest whole milk, to the processing of the valuable curd, to the perfect timing of the creation of the cheese and the inspection and in-house packaging. It’s the attention to detail that continually guarantees consistency and quality.”
In the mid-’80s they opened a plant in upstate New York, where he “worked” the milk. “I made the curds the way I want, the way we make it in Italy,” he says. “People would taste it and I would see their faces. ‘Wow,’ they said. When my nephew came here, we got a place in Brooklyn and started to make it in the store. After that, we started to get more and more customers, we worked really hard to bring this business to where it is today,” he says.Today, Lioni’s successful team includes Sal’s wife, Michelina, and their children, Giovanni and Teresa as well as Giuseppe’s children, Salvatore and Andrea, the sixth generation. Together, they all continue to be fully involved in the day to day operational and production processes as well as sales, marketing and product development.
What makes his cheeses – he has 40 different varieties of mozzarella and ricotta – so different, says Salzarulo, is their consistency and quality.
The cheese is sold by size: 1 Gram: Perline, 4 Grams: Perle, 9 Grams: Noccioline, 13 Grams: Ciliegine, 1.5 Ounces Bocconcini, 4 ounces: Ovoline.
The company has won many awards. Lioni’s Burrata Con Panna earned a gold medal, World Cheese Awards, in 2012 at the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC Birmingham, run by the UK’s Guild of Fine Food, one of the largest and most esteemed competitions of its kind in the world, according to Church; and this year, a silver medal at the World Champion Cheese Contest, fresh mozzarella class.
“We have distributors in every major city and state in the country and the mozzarella is made fresh to order” Salzarulo says. He’s very particular about how distributors handle his product,” Church says. “It’s my reputation,” Salzarulo adds.
Our fresh mozzarella scale starts with one gram, and goes all the way up to one pound in water. “It’s specific to the customer’s needs,” says Church. “Restaurants particularly like that they can order the exact size that they need so there is no waste.”
One customer used to order cheese sliced. “I tell them, ‘You’re making a mistake. Once you cut it, all the juice comes out, there’s no taste,” says Salzarulo. “That’s when I invented the Medallion. It’s pre-portioned, one ounce, always consistent in size, the perfect pairing for a sandwich or Caprese salad.”
To this day, nothing has changed, he says. “We make it exactly the way we made it in Italy. We got started in the heart of Brooklyn, where there was a large Italian-American community, and through word of mouth, we took off.