Two evenings ago, I came across the best I've had in recent memory, and it is numbered now among some of the most standout versions I've ever tasted. This particular incarnation had three unique elements that could make a difference in the way that you make your mac n' cheese.
What made this mac n' cheese as good as it was had mainly to do with its overt cheesiness. All mac n' cheese is cheesy to a certain extent, but this version was less saucy and more about the cheese itself, in straight-up gooey, melted form, without the cover of a bechamel sauce.
Because bechamel didn't play a huge role, the dish was nearly string-cheesy, which couldn't have been the case with a more saucy, creamy mac n' cheese. This dish was so stringy that the cheese stretched all the way from plate to mouth, resembling strands of angel hair pasta more than actual cheese.
After some quick questioning of our waiter and more focused eating, I've come up with the three details of this version that made all the difference:
- Provolone cheese. I've never, ever used Provolone for mac n' cheese. Our Milanese waiter assured me that it was the prevalent cheese used, and then it made sense. Provolone is a "pasta filata" cheese, meaning that the curds themselves are actually pulled during the process of cheesemaking. (Think mozzarella, the ultimate pasta filata cheese. Stringy, indeed.) When melted, the stringy structure of this style of cheese remains, which is why your mozzarella on your pizza becomes stretchy and stringy, and why in this case, the cheese shined all the more. Definitely using provolone in my next mac n' cheese. Definitely.
- Parmigiano Reggiano. There was nary a breadcrumb topping to be had in this mac n' cheese. But it wasn't missed. Imagine a cheesy crunchy topping, rather than one that's bready and crunchy. Parm on the top, thrown beneath a broiler, will result in a lid to your mac that far outshines any smattering of breadcrumbs I've ever had. With such crisp and toasty caramelization, I'm never going back to breadcrumbs.
- Truffle Oil. If there's anything that can be overplayed, it's truffle oil. Truffle oil can so easily be too strong, too aromatic, and too overpowering. At its worst, it tastes fakes, and is too often mis- and overused. The cook exercised incredible restraint here. You'd maybe not even recognize the inclusion of the oil by taste. It was more an aromatic quality that the oil lent to the dish, which made it just slightly refined and really quite special.
Find this gem of a mac n' cheese for yourself at Aria Wine Bar, located at 117 Perry Street, between Greenwich Street and Hudson.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)