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Venissimo Cheese

754 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills




SANDWICH ONE: Don't ask Melissa to say "cheese." She's staggering under the weight of a ginormous box of it.

"Sixty-five pounds of stinky cheese!" she says, and dumps the box on a gurney. "My truck reeks every time I deliver here."

Melissa's the FedEx lady. Two minutes later, she's coming out of the shop, chewing on cheese. "Yeah, but this is aged Gouda," she says. "My favorite. Not like that Cowgirl Red Hawk stuff."

'Course it turns out that that stinky Cowgirl stuff won "Best in Show" at the American Cheese Society in 2003. So hey, this has to be one of my candidates.

What's going on? The start of my cheese 'n' sausage saga here in Mission Hills.

What happened is that I saw what looked like freebies being given away to a bunch of people at this upmarket cheese place. It had all the markings of one of those specialty shops where society dames come to select canapés for their poolside cocktail parties. People were outside sampling cow cheese, sheep cheese, goat cheese, fruity cheeses, moldy cheeses, runny cheeses, and yes, stinky cheeses.

On the other hand -- and this was the clincher for me -- the shop had "Cheese Sandwich, $5.00" written on a sidewalk, uh, sandwich board.

Inside, the place is bright yellow and white. Dairy colors, I guess. And at the back counter, this gal Sarah serves up little butter boards loaded with toothpick-speared cheeses.

It's like a wine tasting. And the prices match. I can see cheeses going from, like, 6 bucks a pound to, wow, 30.

"This one's from Holland. 'Ewephoria,'" Sarah's saying. "It's a 'schapenkaas' Gouda from sheep's milk. Notice it's slightly sweet but also nutty and quite dry. Totally seductive."

I grab one of the toothpick samples. Have to admit. That sweet nutty thing is dead on.

"Now this," she says, laying out another little row, "is from the Surfing Goat Dairy in Hawaii..."

"Can I help?" asks this other gal at the cash register. Gina.

"Uh, I'm here about the sandwich," I say. Feel like the country goat from Nebraska.

"Oh, yes. What kind of cheese?"

"What's the choice?"

"Whatever you see."

"Yeah, but prices? Some are up there. We're talking the five-dollar sandwich?"

"It doesn't matter, sir. Just choose whichever you want."

Where the heck does a man start?

"Got Velveeta?" I ask.

"Uh, no, sir."

"Cheez Whiz?"

"Sir, we have 60 different kinds of cheese here, 80 percent from Europe. Perhaps you'd like to look?"

I was just pulling her chain. On the other hand, they have so many, with names like Épousses Berthaut and Boschetto that I kind of panic.

"Try the Boschetto," Sarah says. "It has truffles in it. It's $15 per half-pound."

"Épousses Berthaut was Napoleon's favorite," says Gina. "It's so strong they have banned it on Paris public transport."

That gives me an idea. I've always liked stinky cheeses. Ones like bleu cheese, with mold in them. Roquefort and the like.

"What's the stinkiest cheese you've got?" I ask.

Gina -- turns out she was the one who started this business a couple of years ago -- thinks for a moment. "Sarah?"

"The Schloss," Sarah says. She gives an evil laugh. "Would you like to taste it first?"

"No. I'll go ahead and have that," I say.

"Baguette, seedy sourdough, or ciabatta?"

"Seedy sourdough."

"And with a pear or grapes?"

"Wha...?"

"Each sandwich comes with grapes or a pear, to palliate the taste," says Gina.

"And it's, like, part of the deal? The five bucks?"

"Part of the deal, sir. So, which? May I suggest the pear? It's good with particularly --"

"Stinky?"

"-- aromatic cheeses."

So that's what she makes for me. A big ol' sourdough bun from Bread & Cie covered in sesame -- and poppy? -- seed, plus one fat, ripe d'Anjou pear. She plops them in the bag.

"One question," I say, looking around. "Where am I supposed to eat this?"

"Well, you could find a park. We have no tables. But usually the Starbucks on the corner doesn't mind."

While I shuffle my pockets for the five bucks, Gina tells me how she learned cheeses in Colorado from her Austrian-German parents. "When other kids'd ask for ice cream fudge sundaes, I'd ask for Camembert," she says. This business, her first, has "worked beyond my wildest dreams," she says. "Cheese is really coming back."

Even though it's high fat and all that?

"Just be like the French. Everything in moderation. And remember, it does give you calcium and protein."

Two minutes later, I have a $1.50 cup of cawfee warming my hands in Starbucks' breezy patio at Washington and Falcon. I take my first crucial bite. Gina said my Schloss cheese is made by the Marin French Cheese Company in Marin County but was originally an Austrian cheese, Schlosskaese, or castle cheese. It's supposed to be "replete with delicate naughtiness" -- the company's words -- and "tawny and tangy," and "ideal with black pumpernickel and a stein of beer."

I take a bite. Hmm. "Tawny and tangy" is exactly it. And because it's just cheese and bread, you kinda need the black coffee to, uh, palliate it. Then I take a chunk of pear. Oh man. Beautiful combo! So I kind of triangulate between the three. I mean, how simple can a meal get? BCCP: bread, cheese, coffee, pear. I lean back, slurp my cawfee, smug and satisfied.

That's when I chance to glance across Washington. What's that sign? Something makes me get up. Leave my coffee. Cross the road. (Next week: Olde World second course.)

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