How to Make Perfect Mozzarella Sticks, According to a Chef
It’s a good bet that Zach Pollack has thought about mozzarella sticks more than any other chef in Los Angeles.
“We were going to open an Italian-American pizzeria,” says Pollack, who recently unveiled Cosa Buona in Echo Park. “It was kind of a no-brainer: We had to have mozzarella sticks. They’re so obviously delicious.”
Cosa Buona’s mozzarella sticks are made with a breading Pollack also uses for a chicken sandwich at Alimento, his inventive Italian restaurant in Silver Lake that’s garnered extensive critical acclaim. (Alimento, where Pollack reverses the idea of tortellini en brodo by serving broth-stuffed pasta with a mortadella-and-cheese-laden sauce, was named L.A.’s best Italian restaurant by Los Angeles magazine critic Patric Kuh in 2015.)
That breading, Pollack says, “adheres very nicely and stays really crispy.”
In order to find the ideal cheese, Pollack tested numerous mozzarellas.
“Some were too wet, some would just kind of spill out,” he says. “Others were too chewy and firmed up too quickly.”
After many trials, he chose a smoked mozzarella with an ideal elasticity. He knew it was the right cheese when he stretched and stretched a thread of mozzarella and it still stayed intact. (If you want to see how well it holds together, there’s an adorable Instagram video of Pollack and his wife sharing a mozzarella stick.)
“I have yet to reach a distance where it actually snaps or falls apart,” he says. “I’ve gone like 15 feet.”
Plus, Pollack chose the smoky mozzarella because it goes well with his “garlic-heavy marinara.” That bliss-inducing red sauce is a delicious reminder of the difference between Italian-American food and Italian food.
“For a long time, especially when I was very dogmatic about traditional Italian food, I shied away from ever getting any color on garlic,” says Pollack, who worked at restaurants in Italy and opened Sotto in L.A. “But having a little bit of lightly browned garlic in the base of the tomato sauce [at Cosa Buona] makes a huge difference. It takes it to that red-saucy kind of point that’s not something you really ever get in tomato sauces in Italy. But it’s imperative here.”
Also imperative is cooking the mozzarella sticks for the right amount of time.
“Even with this great cheese, it’s not like, ‘Oh, just throw it in the fryer and forget about it,’” Pollack says. “If it’s too hot, it kind of bubbles out. Or it spills out and you end up with this vacuous shell of breading.”
And we all know that nobody wants a vacuous shell of breading.
Meanwhile, if a mozzarella stick doesn’t get hot enough, it will be too firm. So Cosa Buona carefully monitors the temperature and texture of every order.
“We’re just doing it precisely, which is kind of the ethos of this restaurant in many ways,” Pollack says. “We’re not trying to reinvent Italian-American food. We’re just trying to do it as well and precisely as we can.”
So Pollack triple-cooks his chicken wings, which are made with his own hot sauce and accompanied by a “blue-cheese dressing made from high-quality gorgonzola.”
Compared to the more traditionally Italian pizzas at Sotto, Cosa Buona is using dough that’s less fermented. Pollack wanted “a little less tang” in his Italian-American pizzas. And he’s being a bit more aggressive about how he stacks toppings like pepperoni.
For his pizza sauce, he’s using famed pizzaiolo’s Chris Bianco’s Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes.
“They’re a little sweeter than Italian San Marzanos, a little less acidic,” Pollack says. “But for this restaurant, it really strikes the right note.”
For Cosa Buona’s mushroom pizza, Pollack uses both cremini and maitake mushrooms.
“We have some maitake because I like the texture that they give,” Pollack says. “I like the way they brown in the oven.”
That mushroom pizza, of course, goes beyond a typical Italian-American preparation. And so does Cosa Buona’s sausage pizza with mustard greens.
“That’s more of a play on a Southern Italian thing, which is sausage and bitter greens of some kind,” says Pollack, who adds that leafy mustard greens work better on a pizza than big florets of rapini.
For Pollack, Cosa Buona is all about refining familiar flavors.
“There are a shit-ton of styles of pizza, of course, but it all pretty much can be divided into conventional pizza and artisanal pizza,” Pollack says. “There’s a lot of bad in both and a lot of good in both. And here, I wanted to blur the lines and take an artisanal approach and have this great dough, but to make the toppings ones that people are really comfortable with and oftentimes nostalgic about.”
Cosa Buona should also have customers feeling nostalgic on its forthcoming Morricone Mondays. That’s when the restaurant, which currently serves no pasta except for an herbaceous pasta salad, will play the soundtracks of spaghetti westerns and serve big plates of spaghetti and meatballs.
Cosa Buona sells a lot of meatballs as an appetizer and always ends up with a surplus of sauce.
“There’s this really rich tomato sauce that’s one part tomato to two parts of meatball cooked in it,” Pollack says. “We’re never going to serve pasta in a major way here. But to have one night a week where we can, like, put all the love and attention we give every pasta at Alimento into a plate of spaghetti and meatballs will be fun.”