I proudly call North Jersey home, the part of The Garden State ripe with reality tv stereotypes and packed with a population that doesn’t give a shit that we incorrectly call our famous breakfast meat Taylor Ham. Well, because it is Taylor Ham. It’s where we all have that one friend who inexplicably turns into Sebastian Maniscalco every time he orders a sandwich from a deli. “Yea, can I getta sub with fresh mutz and extra pro-shoot.” And we universally accept words like manigot, gabagool and ghanols as synonyms for manicotti, capicola and cannoli. It’s a Jersey thing fugheddaboudit. So, you could imagine my excitement when I recently discovered there is a cheese called scamutz, found only in the Hazleton Pennsylvania area. Any food that sounds like you need to talk with your hands to order it and is not from Jersey is worthy of a road trip in my book.
Hazleton is about an hour from the NJ border and 100 miles from Philadelphia. It is a small city in the coal mining region of Northeastern Pennsylvania near the crossroads of Interstates 80 & 81 known for its hard working blue collar residents. In its heyday, Hazleton had a population of just under 40,000 people of mostly European descent, many from Eastern Europe, Italy and Ireland. Today, it boasts a growing Latino community led by an influx of Dominican immigrants, which means for a foodie like me, I can order my deep fried pierogis with a side of Mangú. But no matter who comes and goes, scamutz is always there to stay.
Oh, you meant Scamorza Cheese?
It turns out that scamutz isn’t some unicorn cheese after all, it’s just Hazletonese speak for scamorza, a semi soft cow’s milk cheese. I thought “bummer” until I realized how popular this Southern Italian cheese was throughout Hazleton. It’s everywhere. I had to find out first hand what the fascination was with this fugazi mozzarella. I headed over To The Cheese Store & More owned by Nicole Lamasko who proudly prepares this cheese by hand from a decades old recipe she inherited from the previous owner. She showed two kinds, a fresh scamutz that looks a lot like the “fresh mutz” I am familiar with. It has a similar milk curd base, but the bite is firmer and more solid with a less briny taste. The subtle differences make this cheese unique. It is less creamy and has a drier chew. Nicole also makes a dried scamutz or traditional scarmoza, with a pale yellow color and a harder exterior. This cheese is a mix of mozzarella and provolone. It’s used by most restaurants. It’s stringy, gooey melt makes it a perfect ingredient for cheese fries, thick tavern pizza and the omnipresent sausage and scamutz sandwiches. (Not to be confused with a sausage parmigiana)
I went to SNEPA For Senapes!
Hazleton is in the Southern section of Northeastern Pennsylvania- SNEPA (I made that up). NEPA has become a lowkey mecca for non-traditional pizza styles. Old Forge, the self-proclaimed "Pizza Capital of the World" (Spoiler Alert- It’s not) has a unique square cut as does the underappreciated Back Mountain Pan Fried Sicilian. So, it makes sense that Hazleton has its own style as well. Pitza or pitz as it’s known in town is a term
coined by Senapes Bakery (and nearby Tavern) in the 1930s. The story goes that the owner phonetically spelled out pizza to a local sign maker, stressing the T. By the time they realized the mistake, it was to late. The sign stayed and the name stuck becoming part of the local lexicon forever. In addition to their scamutz pizzas, Senapes is known for creating a distinct style of cold cut box pitz. This unique pizza is like a distant half cousin of a Philadelphia Tomato Pie. Baked in trays, the thinner crust has a sturdy undercarriage and is topped with sauce and a sprinkling of pungent parmesan and romano cheeses. It is cut in squares and served in a bakery box lined with wax paper but most impressively, it is meant to be eaten at room temperature. Four other area bakeries Carmen’s (seen above), Longos and Frankie's Pizzeria all have their own versions. Check out NEPA Pizza Review for an expert’s opinion. My review; try them all. They are all slightly different and all very tasty.
According to a reply on my new favorite Facebook Group Greater Hazleton Area Foodie Page!, 90% of the places that claim to use scamutz really substitute the less expensive mozzarella. While I can neither confirm nor deny that remark, it does appear as if the word scamutz may have taken on a “smurf” like interchangeability for any white pizza cheese. The reality is that dried scamorza can be found in most quality cheese shops throughout the country, but only in Hazleton have I found the fresh scamutz.