• Umberto Somma holding a ball of mozzarella cheese. (Joe Somma)Source: Joe Somma
A rags-to-riches tale about the man who introduced Sydney to authentic Italian cheese that's now sought after around the country.
Melissa Woodley

23 Aug 2021 - 12:01 PM  UPDATED 10 Nov 2021 - 12:01 PM

The road to success was never easy for Sydney's king of Italian cheesemaking, Umberto Somma. But the legacy of this man – who brought traditional Italian cheese to Australia – lives on with his two sons at Paesanella Cheese Manufacturers in Marrickville in Sydney's inner west.

The story of Paesanella Cheese begins in 1956 when a young Umberto left his hometown of Pimonte, in the province of Napoli, and boarded a ship headed to Sydney. He came with no friends, no family, no English and next to no money, but with big dreams of introducing Australia to authentic, Italian cheese.

Umberto arrived at a time when Australia was only beginning to experience broader international cuisines. He had felt that there were no opportunities for him in Italy so decided to bring his 300-year family history of cheesemaking to Australia.

Umberto Sonna is a pioneer in Italian cheesemaking in Australia.

During the first few years, Umberto worked a variety of odd jobs to save enough money to start his own cheese business. His first investment was in a shed on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. At 7am each day, Umberto made small batches of mozzarella and ricotta by hand. He then caught a train to Sydney and sold his cheese door-to-door to the local Italian migrant community.

Joe Somma, Umberto's youngest son, says this wasn't easy. "He had a lot of knockbacks as [people] didn't know what Italian cheese was. Back in the day, everyone knew Kraft cheese and cheddar cheese and that was kind of the only cheese around."

Business took a turn in 1962 for disposing leftover whey from his cheese into the river and not having a licence. Authorities fined him but the Italian consulate negotiated to revoke it and Umberto secured a licence. This was a blessing in disguise, since it was the push Umberto needed to purchase his own factory.

Paesanella Cheese Manufacturers is now a cheesemaking institution that operates from its original Marrickville location. Umberto named his business Paesanella, which translates to "country peasant girl" and aligns with the manufacturer's goal to produce freshly made country-style products the traditional, Italian way.

Umberto Somma at the original Marrickville cheesemaking factory.

Umberto passed away in 1988, leaving his wife Teresa, Max and Joe to run a thriving business.

Teresa and Umberto had met each other 20 years before that when she had visited the Paesanella factory on an Australian vacation. "She came here for a holiday, but ended up staying forever," Joe says.

Umberto and Teresa married shortly after and worked together to turn Paesanella into one of the most recognised dairy brands in Australia. The family's cheeses have won multiple awards and are sought after by premier restaurants and delicatessens across Sydney. Paesenella's cheeses are also an integral ingredient in many home kitchens.

"What makes it stand out is the fresh milk flavour, especially when it comes to our ricotta and our mozzarella. We've perfected it over so many years."

Joe laughs as he recalls spending days with his brother at their father's cheese factory as children.

"On the weekends, we'd be dragged out to Marrickville to help out at the factory," Joe recalls. "[Then] many nights, we would actually go with dad to places around the eastern suburbs delivering cheese".

Umberto began teaching his sons how to make traditional Italian cheese from the age of six. Max was more interested in learning the tricks of the trade than Joe and is now the head cheesemaker at Paesanella. Joe valued the time he spent with his father and the life lessons he inherited, such as to always respect customers.

Paesanella's recipes are now four generations' old and feature a signature ricotta, fior di latte, bocconcini, burrata, fresco cheese and mascarpone. The cheese is made and sold fresh daily.

"What makes it stand out is the fresh milk flavour, especially when it comes to our ricotta and our mozzarella," Joe says. "We've perfected it over so many years."

Paesanella's bestseller is its ricotta cheese, which is available in three varieties: fresh, buffalo or dry.

"We use purely milk to make our ricotta, whereas a lot of other companies will use whey and add some milk to it," Joe explains.

To meet growing demand, the Somma family has expanded the company's retail offering by opening an Italian restaurant and café. Paesanella's Pizza Bar, which features Paesanella cheese, sits on the ground floor of their four-storey building and is a short walk from their original factory in Marrickville.

The cheese is also available for purchase at the Paesanella Food Emporium, which is one of the few places in the country where you can purchase fresh warm ricotta or buffalo mozzarella that's manufactured daily.

The Paesanella brand is everything that Italian cheese should be. Max and Joe hope to pass on their father's legacy and continue serving the fresh and authentic Neapolitan-style cheese that Australians adore.

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiariesPhotographs supplied by Joe Somma.

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