Company brings Italian-style specialty cheeses to Clinton Township

By: Nico Rubello | C&G Newspapers | Published March 21, 2013

 Stefano Serra, founder of S. Serra Cheese Co., stands with a few of the 30-plus varieties of cheese made at the Clinton Township facility.

Stefano Serra, founder of S. Serra Cheese Co., stands with a few of the 30-plus varieties of cheese made at the Clinton Township facility.

Photo by Nico Rubello

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Making cheese is in Stefano Serra’s blood. That’s how he sees it.

On the wall of the S. Serra Cheese Co., which he founded in 1997, there hangs a black and white photograph of his father, a Sicilian cheese-maker named Giuseppe Serra, milking a cow. Giuseppe’s dream was to come to America, but he died before he ever got the chance.

His three brothers living in Sicily also made cheese before they passed away. Now his Sicilian nephew does the same.

“To bring the Italian style in the United States — that’s my goal,” Serra said in his Italian accent. “Why do we have to import from Italy when we can make here?”

Stefano, now 64, was only a teenager when his father passed away. He had immigrated from Terrasini, Sicily, to New York only a month or so prior, trying to make his way in the construction trade. He moved to Michigan not long after, and he has owned a construction company for decades.

But since 1997, his attentions have been primarily consumed by the cheese company, located in an industrial complex off 15 Mile, just east of Groesbeck.

In the company freezer storage room, blocks of favorites from his youth, like ricotta, caciocavallo and smoked mozzarella, adorn the shelves next to specialty cheeses dotted with ingredients like pistachios, black olives and peppercorn.

“We have about 30 varieties right now, and every year, I create a new one,” said Stefano’s wife and co-owner Fina Serra. Last year’s addition was a pepperoni cheese, and this year, they’re adding a cheese with black cherries.

From Clinton Township, the cheese is distributed to food stores, bakeries and restaurants across Michigan and Ohio, as well as in the New York City, Boston and Chicago areas. Soon it will even be in Wisconsin.

Fina admits that people tend to associate cheese-making with Wisconsin. “A lot of people, when I tell them we’re here in Michigan, they say the same thing — ‘Michigan? I didn’t know there was a cheese company (there),’” she said.

On the wall, next to the photograph of Giuseppe Serra, hangs another photo of a Sicilian man cooking a large cauldron over a wood fire. Another photo shows a woman ladling melted ricotta out of a cauldron into a stainless steel pot held by a man.

Cheese-making has changed quite a bit from those days.

In the Serra Cheese factory, employees work stainless steel machines and closely monitor large vats of curds. It’s a heavily regulated, delicate and somewhat dangerous process, since temperatures reach up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit during the pasteurizing process.

In some ways, however, things haven’t changed at all. The Michigan-made milk used by Serra is hormone-free, as of December, and no preservatives are added.

“A true cheese-maker is an artist in cheese — somebody that learned to make cheese by smelling the milk, tasting the milk, tasting the curds,” Fina Serra said.

“Every piece of cheese has personality because it’s a person that made the cheese, not equipment. When it’s a piece of equipment, then it’s uniform, the same size, the same weight. When you have people, that person (is) hand-molding the cheese.”

It’s clear that Stefano’s Italian lineage heavily influences the cheese. He journeys to Italy at least two times a year to ensure that the company is keeping up with the latest in authentic Italian cheese-making techniques.

An uptick in demand for locally produced food has brought on an increase in the number of smaller, artisanal cheese producers operating in Michigan during the last eight years, said Jim Collom, an agricultural statistician for the United States Department of Agriculture.

There are 27 cheese manufacturers in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which licenses and inspects cheese operations.

Jennifer Holton, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the number of licenses to manufacture and sell cheese in Michigan is on the rise.  Most of this growth, she said, is occurring in the niche of artisan and specialty cheese producers and is linked to Michigan’s growing wine industry.

Sonny Randazzo, owner of Randazzo Fresh Market, said Serra cheese is sold at all three store locations. Customers like the variety of cheeses and the fact that it’s a Michigan-made product, Randazzo said.

Randazzo said, to get the quality seen in Serra’s artisanal Italian cheeses, stores normally have to buy imported.

“He’s making it with the Old World methods and techniques, but he’s doing it here,” Randazzo said. “For a local cheese-maker like him, to do what he does, it’s pretty unique.”