Scroll TikTok for even just a few minutes, and you’re likely to encounter a video of gooey cheese being pulled into shiny, stretchy strands. It’s a mesmerizing moment — scientifically proven to release brain chemicals similar to the ones involved in addiction.
The mozzarella stick is one of the most recognizable formats for this so-called cheese pull. Soft and springy in the middle, crispy and golden on the outside, it calls to mind bowling alleys and school cafeterias of yore.
Recently, the dish has had a cultural resurgence. It makes appearances on high-end restaurant menus and viral cooking videos — driven, perhaps, by Americans’ desire for nostalgic comfort food during a pandemic, or simply the pleasant aesthetics.
Last year, Tim Szuta introduced a baton-size mozzarella stick to increase sales at his pizzeria, Alphonso’s the Original, in West Allis, Wis. In November 2020, a Facebook video of the mozzarella sticks by D’Naya Rae went viral, receiving 24 million views and bringing an influx of customers.
“People love fried foods, people love cheese, and when you take a big fried cheese stick that is from Wisconsin, that draws the people in,” Mr. Szuta, 41, said.
“If it wasn’t for the mozzarella stick, I’d be out of business,” he added.
According to a report from the food delivery company DoorDash, mozzarella sticks were the most-ordered game-day food during the 2020-21 N.F.L. season, outselling even chicken wings. Big Stick Willy’s, a mozzarella stick wholesale business in New York, currently has back orders equivalent to 18 million pounds of mozzarella sticks. And in January, the James Beard award-winning chef Dan Kluger opened his long-awaited Long Island City restaurant, Penny Bridge, serving mozzarella sticks with smoked tomato sauce.
Breading and frying cheese is a centuries-old practice, as seen in dishes like mozzarella in carrozza and suppli al telefono. The American mozzarella stick — with its hallmark cylindrical shape — most likely came about in the 1970s, when mass-produced mozzarella and commercial deep fryers became available. By the 1980s, the dish was a fixture of many chain restaurants.
But what’s old is new again. Logan Cox calls his restaurant, Milk Drunk, which opened in Seattle in July 2020, an “upscale Dairy Queen,” and the best-selling item is mozzarella sticks. At Milk Drunk, they’re coated in ranch dressing powder and served with a harissa-spiked marinara.
“I never thought they were going to be as popular as they are,” Mr. Cox, 41, said. “The appeal of melted mozzarella is ubiquitous among all humans.”
Jori Mezuda, 28, a TikTok creator, added that mozzarella sticks are prevalent on social media because they are both broadly familiar and a good canvas for creative experimentation. Her video of mozzarella sticks coated in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos has gotten more than 1 million views.
Guan Wang, who in June opened the Japanese restaurant Ichiban in Ames, Iowa, makes a riff on a mozzarella stick that’s filled like the Chinese American appetizer crab Rangoon.
The crab Rangoon mozzarella sticks draw in local diners, who often aren’t familiar with East Asian cuisines, Mr. Wang, 29, said. “They are like, ‘They are serving mozzarella sticks, maybe I will try the bento box.’”
The mozzarella stick has also gone vegan. At Baia, a plant-based restaurant in San Francisco, the dish is made with cashew cheese, tapioca starch and agar. It’s so in demand that even in-person diners had to preorder them online during the first few months of opening last year.
Mike Aurigemma, 49, the director of education for Matthew Kenney Cuisine, which owns Baia, said that unlike other snack foods, mozzarella sticks can be equally enticing in their fast-food and high-end forms.
Even fine dining chefs have a soft spot for mass-market mozzarella sticks. They remind Andrew Carmellini of being a teenage prep cook at a “high ’80s-style” Italian restaurant outside of Cleveland. The mozzarella sticks Mr. Carmellini, 50, serves today at Carne Mare, the Manhattan steakhouse he opened last summer, consist of low-moisture mozzarella and panko bread crumbs — similar in makeup to the ones he made as a teenager.
The dish arrives as a pair of golden-brown rods, just like what you might see at a fast-food chain. Except that they come topped with caviar and cost $28.
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.