By Gretchen McKay


Meet Carol ‘Dearheart’ Pascuzzi, the ever-cheerful cheese expert of Penn Mac

Carol Pascuzzi often finds people staring at her.

She’ll be standing in a line somewhere — the supermarket, perhaps, or an airport hundreds of miles from her creekside home in Turtle Creek  — when she’ll suddenly sense a stranger’s gaze.

“I can tell they’re trying to place me,“ she says. Usually they can’t, if she’s sporting jeans and a sweatshirt instead of the white chef’s hat and butcher’s coat that identify her as one of Pittsburgh’s most recognized food personalities.

She clears things up in an heartbeat with one word.

“All I have to say is ‘‍Dearheart,’ ” Carol says with a chuckle. “And they’ll be like, ’Oh my, God! What are you doing here!’ ”

If you’ve ever stood in line for a piece of cheese at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, chances are you’ll agree that it’s weird to see Dearheart’s smiling face anywhere but from behind the glass cheese counter at the Italian specialty store, where she’s worked for some 30 years.

At 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday through Saturday, she arrives at the Penn Avenue landmark. Her job is not just to slice, grate or scoop Pittsburghers a portion of their favorite domestic or imported cheeses, but also to educate us about our choices. This typically involves samples.

Plenty of customers know exactly what they want — a half-pound of Piave, maybe, or a generous cut of Ubriaco, a sexy Italian cheese from the Veneto region that’s soaked in prosecco. “Drunken” cheeses, she says, are especially trendy.

Every third or fourth person who waits his turn at the counter, though, is clueless. Then, the questions fly.

What was that leaf-wrapped buttery kind I got the last time that tasted so incredible?  

I have this really wonderful bottle of Champagne — what will pair well with it?

What can I put in my mac ’n cheese to make it a little different?

Carol’s skill and charm always come to the rescue.

Like any cheesemonger worth her salt, she’s one heck of a good listener.

“Can you describe it?” she asks a customer who’s drawing a blank on the name of a cheese — she thinks it was Italian — purchased a few weeks ago. “Was is salty? Dry? Nutty?” To help jog the buyer’s memory, she offers up a sliver of Grana Padano. The woman standing next to her gets a piece, too.

Smiles all around.That might not be it exactly, but it’s a keeper.

“Anything else, Dearheart?”

When you wait on dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people a day, the endless chatter could wear you out. Yet day in and day out, Dearheart is as patient with her first patron as her last. Good question or bad, she never judges.

“She goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable,” says Mike Gonze, president of Dreadnought Wines, a distributor of specialty wines in the Strip. He and Carol have been collaborating on wine-and-cheese pairing classes for years now. Whether you’re buying a fancy fromage like Midnight Moon aged goat cheese, which retails for more than $15 a pound, or a cheaper pantry variety, like domestic parmesan, you get the same easy smile from her.

“She lets everyone know, it’s food. You don’t have to like what she likes,” says Mr. Gonze.

“She’s lovely and — this is praise — a really common person,” agrees Tony Knipling of Vecenie Distributing, who during the holidays teams up with her for beer-and-cheese tastings.  “I’ve never seen her not in a good mood, and she puts her heart and soul into that.”

Which explains why some customers give up their place in line until she can wait on them and hear the words that made her famous: “Anything else, Dearheart?”

The endearment is a family tradition. Her grandmother called her mother, Kathleen, that, and she in turn called her oldest daughter that, and she turned it into one of Pittsburgh’s favorite catchphrases.

With so many customers, it’s impossible to remember everyone’s names, Carol explains. Yet great customer service involves making personal connections. “Dearheart,” she says, is “way better” than calling her customers “honey,” “dear” or “sweetie.” It makes them feel warm and comfortable, “like family.”

It’s especially apropos when customers appear to be having a bad day.

“You say that, and they just smile,” she says.

Customers return the affection.

Almost immediately after she started working the cheese counter, she says, people started calling her Dearheart, too. Maybe because they heard her call it out so often (some people count the times while they wait in line). Maybe just because they liked the sound of it. Pittsburgh being a friendly place, the name stuck. Quite literally, actually —  ”Thanks Dearheart!“ is printed with the price on her bags of paper-wrapped cheese.

She loves the nickname. ”It’s a sign of affection.“

Especially, she adds, when you think of all the names you could be called in this crazy world.

A team effort

Carol’s not the first to gain fame cutting giant wheels of locatelli Romano behind the counter at Penn Mac; Ursula Janotti, whose family owned a sausage company in Larimer during its heyday as Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, was the original Cheese Lady. Nor is that Carol’s only duty. A typical day starts with her  making all the creamy olive-, vegetable- and cheese spreads in the refrigerated case between the meat and cheese counters. She’s especially proud of her Italian tuna salad, made with balsamic vinegar and roasted peppers instead of the mayo that her German-Irish family grew up with. (It’s her husband’s grandmother Antonette’s recipe.) She also packs Internet orders and puts together the Cheese of the Month Club baskets.

She might be Penn Mac’s most famous employee, but she insists no one person is in charge. “We work together as a team. We all help and need each other, even if we don’t like to admit it.”

When she first tied on her white butcher’s apron in 1984, the entire store fit into the room that today houses just meat and cheese. (The adjoining rooms were used for storage.) And she only had to be conversant in about 40 traditional cheeses — most of which she grew up with or knew from waiting tables since the age of 16. Today, Penn Mac boasts more than 400 varieties from across the globe, with new products arriving every month. They sell some 200,000 pounds of cheese a week.

Penn Mac owner David Sunseri says she can recite the provenance of every single one, if not the kind of grass the cows ate and the time of day they were milked.

“She never gets flustered,” he says.

Her Bible is Steven Jenkins’ “Cheese Primer.” But her gift for cheesemongering really developed, along with her nimble knife skills and ability to reach for any requested cheese without looking, by working the counter.

When she first started at Penn Mac, the job was simply a means to an end. Her son Carmine, just 3½ pounds at birth, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3. Insurance didn’t cover the therapy sessions.

“I needed a part-time job like everyone else to help make ends meet,” she says.

Food was a good fit.

The oldest of six, Carol often cooked dinner for the family out of the pages of “Joy of Cooking” when her mother was still working at Kroger’s supermarket (her father, Leon, was a traveling salesman); she also did deli work and waitressed at places such as Jimmy Monzo’s long-gone HoJo’s restaurant on Route 22. So it didn’t take long for the Churchill High School grad to start selling a lot of cheese.

“I was familiar with the food, and not afraid of people.“

That includes the suppliers who continually challenge her to try new, unfamiliar cheeses. Which she loves, even when it’s of the blue variety she’s allergic to. Opening their cardboard boxes, she says, is like “unwrapping a Christmas present. Every day is a new day.”

In the ’80s, every Saturday was as crazy as it is today during the holidays. Entire families would queue up to buy enough parmesan or provolone to last the month.

“Huge pieces,“ she says. ”Nothing under a pound. And everybody knew everybody.“

It’s different in 2014. While there still are lines, they’re mostly comprised of singles or couples. Purchases also tend to be smaller — a wedge of this, a chunk of that (though the store requires at least a half-pound minimum). What keeps it fun is that customers are so much more adventurous with their fresh cuts.

Some cheeses remain a hard sell; many Pittsburghers, she says, ”just aren’t ready“ for stinky artisan raw-milk cheeses or aged Dutch Beemster with its fresh, moldy rind.  But the city’s palate continues to evolve and surprise. Even a few years ago, Utah’s espresso-rubbed Barely Buzzed Beehive Cheese would barely have been noticed; now it’s hard to keep in stock. Taleggio, a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from Italy, also is increasingly popular, along with Spanish sheep and goat cheeses.

Carol reads incessantly to keep up to date, but new arrivals also come at the behest of customers.

“They’ll tell me ’I grew up with this,’ or ’I had that on vacation, can you get it in?’” she says.

The fact that her cheeses turn so quickly, says her boss Mr. Sunseri, “show the kind of resource we have here.”

Just one of those people

Getting the uber-private Dearheart to talk about life outside Penn Mac is not unlike unwrapping a wheel of Pecorino Foglie di Noce, a raw sheep milk from Emilia-Romagna, Italy: You have to gently peel away the walnut leaves to reveal the treasure within.

She’s so closed-mouthed about family, for instance, that you might be surprised to learn that the white-moustachioed man behind the counter is her husband of 43 years, Nick, whose family owned La Famiglia Pascuzzi Restorante Italiano on Saltsburg Road in Plum in the ’70s. She met him at age 16, when he stepped in for a boyfriend who wouldn’t take her to her driver’s exam.

After work on a recent night, she opens up a little.

Talking a walk before dinner along the creek that borders much the couple’s 9 1/2 acres, Carol talks about her love of the outdoors and a garden that this summer will overflow with eggplant, basil, tomatoes and zucchini. She points out an arbor that by September will be heavy with Concord grapes. She’ll turn the crop into blue-black jelly her co-workers usually fight over.

After a busy,10-hour day on her feet, it’s nice to be able to retreat somewhere quiet, or as she puts it, “go from city water to well water.”

Later, over plates of pork chops, fried potatoes and picture-perfect Caprese salad (being Pittsburgh’s Queen of Cheese, they eat one variety or another practically every day), we visitors learn that she paints. Has trained and shown champion cocker spaniels. Is a proud grandma who loves to fuss over her 4-year-old granddaughter in Houston. And despite having a job that entails always looking for the next Big Thing, hasn’t warmed to modern technology.

Use an iPad, computer or cellphone? “I’m too fidgety for that.”

How so? As a 3-year-old, her mother recalls, she’d get a dishcloth and scrub the floor when others were playing. “She’s just one of those people.”

Today, Carol would rather funnel that excess energy into baking one of the ricotta pies or cheesecakes for which her husband says she’s famous, or quietly raising money for Autism Speaks. (Two nephews are on the spectrum.) Usually it’s by donating her teaching stipends, but not always; last December, quite out of the blue, she showed up at a wine-and-cheese class hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust with a painting of a bottle of wine being poured into a glass. Someone bought it and she donated the proceeds.

“As busy as she is, the thought she took the time to put her personal touch on something … that’s why everyone loves her,“ says Susan Sternberger, the Trust’s theater services director.

She loves ’em right back. ”Even the grumpy ones.“

Putting smiles on people’s faces and making them feel excited about cheese, she says, might not seem like a big deal. But it’s really a joy like no other.

“You’re helping them with something so personal — their meal,” she says. “So you have to treat them like family.”

Dearheart’s Caramelized Onion and Asparagus Pizza

PG tested

Carol Pascuzzi calls this her “clean-out-the-refrigerator dish.” This recipe calls for onions and asparagus but you could use any veggie or meat that’s hanging out in your fridge. If you don’t want to deal with fresh dough, a prepared pizza shell or flat bread works just fine. You can both taleggio and burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, where “Dearheart” has manned the cheese counter for more than 3 decades.

3 tablespoons butter

Pinch of sugar

2 large onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound asparagus, peeled and trimmed

2 tablespoons oil

12 ounces fresh pizza dough (enough for 2 12-inch pizzas)

1/2 cup thinly sliced taleggio cheese

1/2 cup burrata (fresh Italian cheese)

Prepare an indirect medium-hot fire in your grill.

Prepare onions. Melt butter in large cast-iron skillet on grill. Add onions and toss to coat with butter. Cover and slowly cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until golden. Turn heat up to medium high and begin to brown the onions, stirring constantly about 10 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

While onions are cooking, prepare asparagus. Place asparagus on a plate. Drizzle oil over the asparagus and turn spears until they are coated. Sprinkle with salt and turn again.

Grill asparagus for 5 minutes over a hot grill. Each minute or so, roll each spear 1/4 turn. Asparagus should begin to brown in spots (indicating that the natural sugars are caramelizing) but should it not be allowed to char. Slice et aside.

Transfer dough to a floured surface and cut into 2 equal pieces. Oil a baking sheet and stretch each piece out on it to form a 10- to 12-inch circle 1/8-inch thick.

Gently lift one piece of dough, using both hands, and drape it onto grill over hottest part of fire. Dough should puff slightly within a minute, and the bottom will stiffen. As soon as grill marks appear on underside, turn dough over with tongs, and move to edge of grill, away from heat. Repeat with remaining dough.

Scatter caramelized onions over top of pizzas. Sprinkle on cheeses, followed by grilled asparagus, which you should arrange in a circular pattern with the tips facing out.

Slide pizzas back over fire. Cook pizzas, rotating frequently, for 30 to 60 seconds, or until bottom is slightly charred and cheeses bubble. Serve at once.

Makes 2 pizzas.

— Carol “Dearheart” Pascuzzi