It is not unusual for families to pass down treasures from generation to generation, such as jewelry, furniture, china, clothing or paintings. In Thomas Campanella’s family, the heirloom passed down three generations is a wheel of Romano cheese.The story begins 75 years ago, when Campanella’s grandfather, Giovanni Tambasco and his grandmother Rafaella immigrated to the United States and opened their Brooklyn store to sell imported vegetables, pasta, olives, oils and cheese, among other items. These provisions were purchased from both Wallabout Market down the street and an importer off of Flushing Avenue in Queens and sold to the Poles, Lithuanians and Italians who labored in the nearby Navy Yard.
Although the nameless store made it through the Depression, it did not survive World War II and the urban renewal that this brought to the area. Public housing and self-service supermarkets replaced the neighborhoods’ mom-and-pop operations, and, with the closing of Wallabout Market, the Tambasco’s business shut its doors in 1941. The Romano wheel was amongst the items salvaged from the store and was consumed sparingly by the Tambascos during the ensuing war years.
After taking a factory job upon the store’s closing, Giovanni passed away from pneumonia in the early 40s. Rafaella remained in the neighborhood until 1964, when a new public school took over her apartment building’s land. “She moved to Bay Ridge, another Brooklyn neighborhood, and brought the chunk of cheese with her,” says Campanella.
Fast forward to 1974, when Campanella’s uncle was the recipient of the Romano cheese wheel upon Rafaella’s death. Kept frozen and wrapped in an olive oil-soaked cheese cloth, the cheese remained mostly intact when it was passed down to Campanella in 2015, who was informed about the cheese’s history and significance from his uncle.
“After my grandmother died in 1974, the cheese went from being a keepsake or momento of the old neighborhood to a memorial to my grandmother,” says Campanella. “At that point, it wasn’t eaten anymore, but was instead considered a historic object. That’s how it survived the next 40 years virtually intact.”
To find out if the Romano wheel was still edible, Campanella paid a visit last summer to his friends Kate Arding and Mona Talbott at Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions in Hudson, NY. “I met Mona when she was a chef at the American Academy of Rome, and knew Kate as a very accomplished cheese expert; that’s why I took it to them to assess,” explains Campanella.
The fact that it was Romano cheese was advantageous. Its low moisture content gave it the necessary heartiness and qualities to survive years of freezing. “This makes the cheese resistant to decay, as well,” says Campanella. “And it makes sense that Romano was a provision for Roman troops; it holds up very well.”
Although it had a pungent scent, Talbott and Arding said the cheese was not rancid, but instead remarkably clean for its age. Removing a sample with a cheese trier, Arding handed Campanella a slice to try. To her knowledge, no one had eaten a cheese this old, and she was amazed at its condition. Campanella describes the sampling experience as a salt bomb in his mouth. And he is determined to preserve his grandparent’s legacy to the best of his ability.
The ancient wheel now remains mostly intact, rewrapped in the olive oil-soaked cheese cloth in Campanella’s refrigerator. It turns out cold air is better for preserving the Ramono than frigid. “I don’t have plans for it, but I like to know that it’s there,” he says. “Maybe here and there I’ll take a tiny piece and savor it.” Regardless of its use, the cheese remains a significant relic of the past, as its family journey continues.