A Taste of Casu Marzu: The day I ate maggots and liked it.

Freshly opened Casu Marzu (Credit: Giuseppe Viterale) 
My first interaction with Giuseppe Viterale, owner of Ornella Trattoria in Astoria, Queens, was shockingly harsh. From Culture Cheese's tweet of Bradley Hawk's blog, Amuse Bouche, I learned that  the famed Casu Marzu, a cheese filled with live maggots, had arrived in the US and was residing no further than a short train ride from my apartment. I immediately dialed the owner to find out when I could come and experience this cheese.

Whole Casu Marzu (Credit: Giuseppe Viterale)

I received a stern lecture explaining that the cheese was not for sale, that it would never be for sale, and that the only way to get to the cheese was through Giuseppe. "I will give you the cheese if I like you!", he shouted, adding another layer of challenge to the already Fear Factor-esque experience in store for us. 

 The restaurant was cozy, the walls covered in murals depicting Italian geography and scenes. Giuseppe, in contrast to his demeanor on the phone, greeted us with a gracious handshake and a smileWe ordered the specials, a moist lamb dish and an exceptional homemade pasta with pistachio and chestnut sauce. 
Close Up (Credit: Giuseppe Viterale)
We thoroughly enjoyed our meals, although my stomach was 
already jumpy in preparataion for what would come next.

Building up the suspense, Giuseppe visited our table every few minutes to share pieces of the story of Casu Marzu. The cheese has been made by locals on the island of Sardinia for thousands of years. It begins as a traditional cheese, made from sheep's milk in the style of a pecorino. Then, after the cheese is made, it is placed outdoors and a hole is cut in the top to let in the "cheese fly", which lays its eggs inside.

The man himself, serving up Casu Marzu.
 These eggs grow into larvae that begin devouring the cheese, decomposing the fats through digestion and excreting the remains. Giuseppe emphasized this point, that not only were we eating live maggots, but the cheese we were consuming between the bugs was filled with their "poop" (his technical term). 

After waiting for what seemed like hours, Giuseppe emerged from the basement with the Casu Marzu draped in a white cloth. When he unveiled it, I cheered, gasped and peered inside the wheel, but only saw brainy lumps. The smell was strong, but appealing. "This isn't so bad!", I exclaimed, almost disappointed by the seemingly normal cheese. Giuseppe slathered a generous amount of the cheese on a piece of fresh toast. To ease our                                                                         fears, he took a huge bite (and washed it down with a swig of red wine).

My first bite!
I raised my toast, feeling undaunted, only to see that the cheese was actually writhing with squirmy little worms. But I couldn't back down now. I bit. I chewed. I cringed and smiled. It was strong, psychologically challenging, but actually very enjoyable.

Bradley Hawks described Casu Marzu's flavor accurately when he said that it started out as a strong pecorino, hinted of gorgonzola, and finished with a taste of pepper. I will add that it leaves a film in your mouth for hours, preventing you from forgetting the little buggies you're currently digesting. If Casu Marzu didn't contain live maggots, I would eat it regularly. But then again, it's the maggots that give this cheese a unique taste unrivaled by other cheeses. 

My friends have continually asked who the first person could have been to try Casu Marzu, and why they would ever bite into a rotten cheese filled with maggots. I can't answer that question. But for more info, check out this video featuring a history of the cheese and Gordon Ramsey's reaction to a taste:

Now go out and eat some (maggot filled?!) cheese.