Mark Paladini wants you to stop overpaying for mediocre cheese and start learning what you like and why. Paladini is the proprietor of The Greedy Ant and an encyclopedia of bleus, cheddars and pecorinos. His shop, on Ralston and El Camino in the sleepy hamlet of Belmont, should be on your go-to list for your next party or big brunch.
Here’s what to expect when you walk in: The chalkboard menu, a disarray of unfamiliar names, is the first thing you’ll notice. You know Swiss cheese, but you’ve never heard of Moosbacher Swiss. You’ve had way too much bleu, but the names Persille Tremblaye and Roquefort Aoc mean nothing to you. Then there’s the pungent fumes, that mixture of Windex and warm cream that are customary in a proper cheese shop.
The Greedy Ant is all about learning by tasting. On my first visit, Paladini hands me a slice of Ricotta Salata to start, a goat cheese from Italy that’s crumbly and extremely mild in taste. Then we go in the opposite direction and he offers me a slice of Pecorino Moliterno, made of sheep’s milk with truffle oils throughout. The truffle wakes up every part of me that was still snoozing.
“Places like Whole Foods and Mollie Stone’s have some nice choices [in cheese], but they’re cut and wrapped in plastic,” he says. “It’s a different experience to have someone, like a cheesemonger, personalize a visit and tune into the flavors and nuisances in the cheese that ‘speak’ to someone.”
I try the next, the semi-soft Campagnolo from Italy that’s spicy and flavored with chili, but I can’t escape that oily, truffle conundrum that somehow made it’s way from the roof of my mouth into every pore on my body.
“Take our Leonora cheese, “ Paladini continues. “The dairy’s backed up to an orange juice factory in north western Spain. Over time, the goats had rinds introduced into their feed and now there’s a hint of orange that comes out in the finish. The world would have never known that story if [this cheese] was just sitting on a shelf.”
Next up: charcuterie. The Greedy Ant is a cheese shop first and a sandwich store second. His lunch crowd keeps him in business and allows Mark to get weird with his love of fine, rare cheeses.
We stick with the theme of the day, as he serves me up some of his truffle ham that’s starting to attract a loyal following in the area. We move on to a Speck Alto Adige and then an Olli Smoked Salami that’s the most unique salami flavor I’ve ever tasted.
A San Francisco native, Paladini moved to Los Angeles at young age to learn both sides of the restaurant industry, cooking in kitchens and waiting on tables. He then moved back up to the bay to work for Niman Ranch when the company’s business team was still operating out of a garage. Over his 13 years at Niman Ranch, Mark was exposed to thousands of top chefs and helped grow their specialty meat department into what it is today. After a few years at an Italian food importer, Mark decided to open The Greedy Ant.
“My whole life has led me to this shop,” Paladini says.
His biggest struggle: convincing gourmands to spend their dough on the Peninsula instead of in the city. “People around here have the money, but a lot of them just don’t want to spend it on the peninsula.”
Paladini sees progress, though. One customer used to plan their weekends around getting to Berkeley’s Cheeseboard early in the morning to beat the lines. Not any more.
“New customers come in often and say, ‘Thank God you’re open.’”