Casellula Dusts Off the Cheese Course

Fermented milk, hold the pretension.

EM3-LowRes6If you think a cheese plate has to be a white tablecloth affair, it’s time for an attitude adjustment and a trip to Midtown. At Casellula, a gem of a restaurant tucked away on a side street, cheese lovers extraordinaire Brian Keyser and Tia Keenan are laying that myth to delicious rest.

The two turophiles met a few years back while working at the Modern and decided that the somewhat stodgy institution of the cheese course was in dire need of a populist makeover. While cheese plates citywide might be festooned with fancy, unpronounceable things and shrouded in snobbish mystery by smug waiters, Keenan and Keyser throw down with a wild assortment of delectable housemade condiments to pair with their list of exquisite cheeses—up to 45 selections on an average night. Says Keenan of her irreverent pairings, “I aim to demystify the American perception of cheese as something European and scary. When an American guy sees a European cheese paired with corn nuts or peanut butter, he doesn’t feel intimidated. He thinks about his lunch box in the third grade.”

Perhaps the lack of pretension comes with the territory. Before there was Casellula, there were hot dogs—lots of them. The beautiful, cozy space on 52nd Street just off Ninth Avenue with its south-facing glass facade was once the nocturnal home to our fair city’s rattling, clattering legions of hot dog vending carts. Where others saw storage space, owner Keyser saw the perfect opportunity for a new kind of restaurant. Hell’s Kitchen, long marginalized by its location and lack of overall hipness, was becoming home to ever-increasing numbers of young people in search of culinary excitement. He and Keenan have slowly begun to change the perception that there’s nothing much doing in the neighborhood.

To say that the menu at Casellula is cheese-centric would be an understatement. Keenan relies on about 20 sources for her cheeses, domestic and imported, and the selections change nightly according to what’s at the peak of perfection, running from familiar favorites to small-batch treasures that almost never see the light of day—or the darkness of a city bar.

Milk and cheese are touted as art by Keenan, who describes her work at Casellula as akin to a sushi chef’s: She treats each morsel as a pure expression of itself, and finds the perfect pairing to do it justice.

But there’s more to the menu than cheese. One can easily make a hearty meal from the unpretentious, ragtag band of small plates Casellula offers forth. Check your political correctness at the door and order a Pig’s Ass sandwich, or snarf down one of the most gorgeous marriages of European haute cuisine and good old American fast food on record: truffled cheese fries. While most items on the menu incorporate cheese in some way, there’s a wide array of olives, pickles, salads and cured meats to round out the offerings.

These days Casellula is packed to the gills, and not only because the neighborhood has welcomed them with open arms: Their reputation has made them a destination for curd nerds from all around town. It’s not uncommon for Keenan and Keyser to sling cheese till the wee hours, as the crowd morphs from neighborhood noshers to just-off-work cooks from the likes of Le Bernadin, Jean Georges and Per Se, proving that at the end of the day, the cheeses aren’t the only ones who like a break from white tablecloths.

Fermentation, illuminated. Tia Keenan says she aims to “demystify” cheese. Photo credit: Melissa Hom

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Anne Saxelby is the dairy queen behind Saxelby Cheesemongers, the only shop in New York City devoted solely to American artisan cheeses, sourced direct from the finest farms in the northeastern United States.