754 W. Washington St.
"Do you love cheese?" I asked my editor.
"I like cheese as much as the next guy," he said.
"Well there's this place in Mission Hills," I effused. "They have brilliant, expensive stuff-high-end stuff, like $10, $20 a pound."
"Oh," he said, visibly recoiling. "I don't like cheese that much."
Well, Gina Freize does. And so, for that matter, does my semi-regular dining companion. My semi-regular dining companion dates a cut-rate restaurant reviewer, however, while Freize, a successful ex-marketing executive, married an environmental-testing firm executive. So no surprise, then, that Freize beat my semi-regular dining companion to the punch, when, in January of this year, she opened Venissimo, the sole cheese shop in our finest of cities.
Cheese, perhaps due to fat-friendly diet trends, has never been cooler. A perfect food, cheese can be eaten plain or combined with just about anything, and comes in a dizzying array of colors, textures, aromas and tastes, from soft, mild cream cheese to famously pungent challenges like limburger (or Venissimo's smells-like-feet-and-tastes-like-it-smells telligio). What's more, most cheese lasts a long, long time. You can stow that four-year aged cheddar in the cellar for a couple more birthdays, without refrigeration. In fact, most Americans make the mistake of over-refrigerating. Cheese should sit on the counter for an hour before serving, and in the name of all that is good and dairy, don't throw away the unused portion. If your cheese gets a little fuzzy, just slice off the moldy part and keep nibbling.
While I'm issuing edicts: don't rush your trip to Venissimo. Linger over the display case and take advantage of the liberal tasting policy. Shopper-friendly signs offer the correct pronunciation, country of origin, and a cartoon cow, sheep, or goat, depending on the origin of the cheese. If you're fishing for a free meal, but too shy to ask for free samples, go on a Saturday, when Freize puts out sample plates of her "oddies," exotic and/or esoteric varieties. Try the aged mimolette, her biggest seller, a dramatic honeydew melon appearance and salty, grainy almost parmesan taste. If you think wine cheese logs are a guilty pleasure, try the drunken goat-goat cheese infused with dramatic wine flavor. My semi-regular dining companion prefers gruyere, not quite soft, not quite hard, with a piquant and chewy rind. (Regarding rinds: unless it is made of wax, plastic or paper, eat it.)
Feeling investigative-and hoping to score some free cheese-I introduced myself and dazzled Freize with my bulldog reporting skills.
"If someone calls you "cheesy,' do you consider that a compliment?" I asked. "What about "cheeseball'?"
Freize pointed out her business card, identifying her as "Cheese Wiz"; her husband's matching card, with the title "Junior Cheese Wiz"; and a sign on the wall: "Now cutting the cheese."
"We love all those jokes," she said. "Bring them on."
Beyond bad puns, Venissimo gives personalized attention from an intimately knowledgeable staff. They will special-order just about anything. They send your order home in a special porous cheese paper that allows the cheese to breathe, without allowing it to dry out. They also include an awesome and ridiculously detailed receipt, giving a description of each purchase, awards won, suggested food and wine pairings-everything but an ode to your cheese selection.
Venissimo also sells cheese-related foods like flatbreads, crackers and olives. (Try the Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese, with its creamy, brie-like exterior, on sun-dried tomato flat bread.) They carry fresh-baked bread from Bread on Market, and in a flash of you-got-your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate inspiration, Venissimo recently started offering a très European lunch special: $5 for a tartine (brie sandwich) and fruit. On April 29, the folks from Wine Steals (1243 University Ave.) will be bringing some of their vino down the street for a joint wine-and-cheese tasting, from 6 to 8 p.m.
The Venissimo slogan is "the best damn cheese on the planet." OK, Freize is one of those ex-marketing executive types, but this time, she might not be stretching the truth too far. She has filled her cases with hard-to-find foreign cheeses, and domestic cheeses from small boutique dairies in California, New York and even one from Georgia. Many are award-winning, such as Marin County-based Cowgirl Creamery's "Red Hawk," which will set you back $30 a pound, and is worth every hard-earned penny. I can only imagine the look on my editor's face. ©
Oh, the choices, the choices... how about this one: It's all gouda at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.