International Indulgence

Tastes from Around the World Shine at Crisafulli's Cheese Shop

By April Bartel | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 05.08.18 – Dining, Food & Drink

Sharon Crisafulli is living the foodie dream. After a successful career in real estate, this native daughter followed her passion and palette into an entirely new business category. She opened Crisafulli’s Cheese Shop in June 2015 with her mom, Betty J. Gardiner, as co-founder and her daughter, Caitlin Crisafulli, as director of marketing. For this tight-knit trio, the shop is both a labor of love and a dream come true.

“People ask how I got from real estate to this,” says Sharon. “The answer is, I just love cheese, charcuterie and cooking. … Just as you can like more than one thing in a lifetime, you can be more than one thing.” She graduated from the United States Personal Chef Association program in 2001, and began routinely scavenging the region from D.C. to New York City for top-notch ingredients to delight clients. Road-weary, she deduced a definite niche market with a gap in the map around her hometown of Frederick. She traces her family’s roots here back to 1840 and distant cousin, Gen. James C. Clarke, a philanthropist and city benefactor who was president of the C&O Canal. Clarke Place, still lined with the ornate Queen Anne-style homes of his era, was named for him. Sharon gushes, “We wanted to bring incredible products to the town that we love the most.”

Cheese, Glorious Cheese

Inspiration for Crisafulli’s stock comes from a personal penchant for travel. “We’re so lucky,” says Sharon, noting favorite trips to Austria, Ireland and Italy. Caitlin lived in Italy while studying, but Spain has a special place in her heart, too. The array of items in the East 2nd Street shop is a mix of international favorites and American contenders. At the start, Crisafulli’s hired a cheese expert to consult, ensuring the shop would rival any cheese counter in America. She attended dedicated “boot camps” and studied with renowned cheese mongers.

A recent trip to Stowe, Vt., unearthed a new favorite, Oma, from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Its short list of ingredients includes organic, unpasteurized cow’s milk, salt, rennet (a curdling agent) and natural cultures. This variety is made in conjunction with the nearby Von Trapp Farmstead. “Oma is the German word for ‘Grandma,’” says Sharon. It’s an homage to family matriarch Maria von Trapp, of The Sound of Music fame. Customers can get a petite round of Jasper Hill’s award-winning brie-like Harbison, too ($19). It’s wrapped in spruce to support its super-creamy consistency and impart vegetal/woodsy overtones. The rind is mottled with blue-green flora and is discarded.

Caitlin describes Harbison as instant fondue.  “I like to slice the top off and heat it in the oven, then dip right into it.” Another of her favorites is Foxglove by Tulip Hill Creamery in Indiana, which Crisafulli’s sells in 4- or 8-ounce portions. It was discovered via Instagram. “It is salty and funky, with the texture of a triple crème, which is kind of rare. It’s the creamiest washed-rind cheese we’ve encountered.” Cheeses can be cut as small as a quarter pound, so customers can taste before committing to a larger purchase.

Crisafulli’s rotates through more than 200 types of cheeses, pending seasonal availability and other factors. Prairie Breeze Cheddar, made in Iowa, is a consistent winner. The shop sold over 500 pounds of it last year. Customers can order online, thanks to nationwide shipping, or request cheeses for consideration. There’s also a cheese of the month club with 3-, 6- or 9-month options.

Across the Pond

Cheese is the star at Crisafulli’s, but don’t underestimate the supporting players: pantry items, unique décor accents, cooking kits, fresh baked goods, wines and a full menu of made-to-order sandwiches. Some imports might seem exotic here, but they offer a taste of home or evoke a pleasant travel memory for others, such as the Spanish chocolates favored by a regular customer who lived in Barcelona. Motioning past the quince paste and varietal honeys, Sharon points to a collection of brightly hued jars labeled “Edmund Fallot & Co” of Beaune, France. “People will come back and say, ‘I went on the tour of this mustard factory!’ They’re blown away to find it in Frederick.”

They stock duck rillettes from France, crispy Swedish Knäckebröd, butter from Parma, Italy, and densely chewy Halloumi cheese from Greece – the kind that’s often doused with ouzo and set alight for dramatic table service. Sharon is adamant, “We do extensive research and taste tests to ensure that each item is the finest. … Quite often, it is also a great price for the quality.” Olive oil from France is $10 a bottle, for example. “Everything is thoughtfully curated.”

How do you learn about cheese … or wine, oil, chocolate, etc.? “Eat it,” says Sharon. “Be adventurous. Follow your curiosity.” Crisafulli’s sells a cheese log book to record your personal experiences. The shop also offers classes. On-site classes and special events top out at about 15 attendees. Off-site classes can be bigger, including private events for business socials/team building. Partner events at Flying Dog Brewery, McClintock Distilling and Big Cork Winery have up to 50 people. An event with Curious Iguana book store is being planned for August. A “Food & Fun” group tour of Holland and Belgium is in the works for next April; trip highlights include visiting a cheese market established in 1365, a farm tour in the city of Gouda and a private chocolate-making opportunity at Neuhaus of Belgium. (Check online for details.)

It’s all about making such tasty treats accessible. Signs around the shop highlight product information to help customers choose. The wine selection is crafted to match cheese-making regions. It is the concept of “terroir,” in essence, “what grows together, goes together.”

A Smaller Planet

Caitlin chimes in, “Usually, in a big supermarket, there’s no one to ask for advice. People get intimidated. We try to make this as easy as possible.” She has a gift for remembering names and faces, too. In return, Crisafulli’s earned a dedicated following. “It’s fun when you find that connection. So many people come in here weekly and ask, ‘What’s new?’ … They turn us loose and say, ‘I’d like three cheeses and I’d like to spend about $40. You pick them.’” Crisafulli’s does plenty of catering trays, too. Caitlin mimes a hug. “They trust us. It’s sweet.”

She continues, “Food is fun. It’s the first line of our website. It’s scientifically proven that eating releases endorphins. So, cheese makes you happy.” Mother and daughter can testify.

“It’s the taste, texture, and smell, the whole package. It evokes strong memories, too,” says Sharon. “That’s why we love it.” She smiles impishly, “We like to think we’re making the world smaller, one bite at a time. That’s our tagline.” Caitlin giggles and jokingly admonishes, “Mom, that’s so cheesy!” Their laughter peals through the compact shop as Sharon replies, smile broadening, “I know!”