Burrata, as cold and plain as ever. Photo: Hugo Yu
My friend and I were excited when we saw “toast d’oursins” on the menu at the new East Village wine bar Ella Funt. We imagined plump lobes of uni draped over fresh-crisped baguette, the menu’s promised “mala oil” lending some tingly heat. But our hearts sank when the $28 starter arrived and we saw it for what it really was: the restaurant’s burrata dish.
Of course, the cheese was listed on the menu too, but we figured it would be a garnish; instead, a thick layer was impossible to avoid in every bite. I felt tricked. If the menu had called this appetizer “burrata with toast and uni” — which is what it was — my eyes would have glazed right over it. “Burrata with …” has become so pervasive across the city’s menus that it has taken the place of kale Caesars as the farm-to-table–era staple that most overstayed its welcome.
To be clear, the problem isn’t burrata itself, essentially a wrapping of mozzarella filled with cream. When it’s applied judiciously (Marea’s chilled lobster with tomatoes and burrata comes to mind), its dense, milky heft serves as a welcome base note to a dish’s other ingredients. But too often, the burrata is the focal point, a thick blob of cold dairy that gets a few splashes of seasonal garnishes and a $20 price tag.
The chef Ignacio Mattos did not invent burrata, of course (that happened in Puglia around 100 years ago), but the “burrata with salsa verde and toast” he served at Estela when it opened in 2013 became something of a template: cheese + crunch + something Greenmarket-y. And like truffles or caviar, it has turned into a crutch for some other chefs. Even ten years ago in lauding Mattos’s dish, Times critic Pete Wells wrote, “Anyone can slap burrata on a plate and wait for the moaning to start.” A decade later, the line feels more true than ever.
I’m thinking of the Colombian European wine bar Maite in Bushwick, which centers its ball of burrata in a black pool of squid-ink sauce. At Otis, nearby, the cheese is served with pesto and sweet potato, while most Italian places lean into some kind of caprese. These are all the same dish.
Then there are the otherwise fine dishes that get some level of added burrata drama. (Yes, blame TikTok.) Take the orecchiette all’arrabbiata con burrata at Cucina Alba in Chelsea. It’s a nice-looking bowl of tomato-sauced pasta with a white orb in the middle that the server snips with shears and tosses tableside until the cheese goes stringy and the once-delicate sauce takes on the color and murky opacity of bottled French dressing. Burrata mania is quickly manifesting as excess. When people are selling truffle–foie gras cheesesteaks topped with a ball of burrata, it’s clear things have gotten out of hand.
Twenty years ago, when it was still being flown in from Italy, burrata was quite novel in the States. Now, Lori Church, a representative for the longtime New Jersey cheese producer Lioni Latticini, says that sales have jumped over the past five years and that burrata’s lasting popularity is due in part to increased domestic production.
Maybe it’s time to dial it back. I like the hot-cold contrast of the relatively austere burrata pizza at L’Industrie in Brooklyn, where dots of fresh cheese are well spaced out. But at Unregular Pizza in Union Square, an entire $59 “burrapizza” can be ordered with six balls of burrata on top (one for each slice). “Open burrata up and spread it out!” is printed on the back of every employee’s shirt, but I struggled to find a spot in nearby Union Square Park where I could adequately dig into a jiggly, cheesy orb without disaster. When I finally found a way to make it work, the mountain of cream overwhelmed the other aspects of the pizza.
Only someone with lactose intolerance could consider burrata to be “bad,” but all too often, it’s predictable. Like steak for two, a raw-bar tower, or Very Nice Bread with “house” butter, “burrata with …” is serviceable, and totally unsurprising. I don’t blame restaurateurs — many of whom are only just starting to recover from the financial toll of the pandemic — for banking on easy crowd-pleasers, but I find myself wishing more people would try to do something different. There is one burrata invention I do recommend from time to time, though: the burrata soft serve at Dominique Ansel Bakery. It doesn’t provide the thrill of a creamy filling oozing out from a just-snipped cheese ball, but it does offer something better: a small flash of creative energy.