Every piece of burrata that Gioia makes — all 1,500 pounds a day — is formed by hand. The process seems simple. Grab a handful of hot mozzarella curd out of its salt-water bath. It's still a little shaggy at this point, like unkneaded bread dough. As quickly and gently as possible, massage it into a smooth ball and then flatten it into a disc.

Grab a handful of filling. This is so moist it practically oozes cream and it is even rougher than the mozzarella dough (the Italians call it stracciatelle, which means "rags").

Put the filling in the center of the disc and quickly begin to stretch the mozzarella around it, much as you would stretch a pizza dough. When the skin is big enough to completely cover the filling, spin the top to tie it in a knot, almost like you'd seal a balloon. Finally, tear off the top knot, leaving a smooth ball.

It sounds simple, but the whole thing must be accomplished very gently and very quickly. Mozzarella dough is temperamental, and rough or prolonged handling turns it tough. From beginning to end, it should take less than 10 seconds to form a ball of burrata. And, of course, you get one shot to get it right.

Though the cheese is now so popular that it seems nearly ubiquitous in Southern California restaurants, its very existence in this country is really a happy accident. As with so many good things from Italy that we now know well — great olive oil, real aceto balsamico, white truffles — in large part we can thank Valentino's Piero Selvaggio and the late Mauro Vincenti from Rex il Ristorante for our introduction to burrata.

It just so happens that Girardi is from the very area of Apulia where burrata comes from, and furthermore, he is a third-generation cheese maker whose grandfather had been one of the first makers of burrata. Ironically, though burrata is beloved in California, on its home soil it is still something of a regional rarity. Not only is it specific to Apulia, but it is only made in the area around Bari, and even more specifically, the little towns from Andria to Martina Franca, including Gioia del Colle (where Girardi's family is from, hence the name of his company).

-Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times