Stella Ballarini wants to make you a grilled cheese sandwich just like your mom’s, assuming your mom made hers with truffles or candied bacon.
And with sourdough or Tuscan. And with Gruyère or Gouda. And with a side of tomato soup with parmesan crostini.
All right, Stella wants to make you a grilled cheese sandwich not like your mom’s, which is probably for the best, because you can’t compete with Mom. She wants to make you a grilled cheese sandwich just like your mom’s if your mom threw parties for the Emmy Awards and Tommy Hilfiger.
Here a grilled cheese sandwich means Swiss, Gruyère, and Apple Compote on Tuscan Bread; or Gruyère and Candied Bacon on Peasant Bread; or Swiss, Parmesan, and Truffle on Tuscan Peasant Bread. Here a grilled cheese sandwich runs from $6.50 to $9.50. Or $2 more if you add maple bacon.
Here a simple grilled cheese sandwich is Mascarpone and Nutella. Here your mom’s grilled cheese sandwich is White American on Potato Bread. Here there are also a Pork Belly Slider with Candied Watermelon Rind, Gourmet Mac & Cheese, and, surprisingly, Tater Tots. Though you can add truffle sauce.
Stella is not the first to glorify the grilled cheese. A dozen years ago I wrote of a place on the Lower East Side called Grilled Cheese NYC. It enticed you to create your own sandwich by choosing one ingredient each from a list of cheeses, a list of vegetables, and a list of spreads. And a list of two breads.
Its cheeses included Dill Havarti and Jalapeño Yogurt. (There was no American.) Its spreads included Basil and Black Olive Pesto. To help you, it had a blackboard with a full-color sandwich schematic. (I am uneasy with such restaurants, which explains why Grilled Cheese NYC is gone.)
By contrast, Say Cheese has already created its sandwiches, potentially reducing your decision workload by hours. You pick one sandwich from a handful, leaving you time to admire the nostalgic décor or to patronize the family’s third business, Zoë Ballarini’s Girl Scout Cookie Stand.
I picked the special, which was Honey Goat Cheese and Blackberries on Semolina-with-Golden-Raisins-and-Fennel Bread. It would have taken me days to create it. I had it with Watermelon Mojito, which contained watermelon, lime juice, mint, agave nectar, and lemon juice. It would have taken me months to create that.
Stella loves making stuff like this, which is the main reason she opened Say Cheese. Basically, she was looking for a good time. “It’s something relatively simple to do, which is just what I wanted,” she says, “because what we do next door is so high-end and so labor-intensive.”
Her main challenge is the customer estimate of sandwich arrival time. Plainly put, Say Cheese is not as quick as Mom. “People get impatient,” Stella says. “People expect grilled cheese to be fast because it sounds like a fast food. But good grilled cheese takes a little while.”Slow down at Say Cheese, 142 West 83rd Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, in New York City.