BEST CHEESE SELECTION (1998)
Honestly? St. Martin's is a toddler compared to Surdyk's, the granddaddy superstore of cheese. But what St. Martin's lacks in breadth of selection, the staff makes up for in attentive service, depth of knowledge, and personal flair. Meet Mary Bess Michaletz, store manager. While helping us construct a cheese course, she admitted an almost genetic propensity for cultured milk. "Some of my family were cheesemakers in the Fox River Valley in Wisconsin," says Mary Bess. "I'm self-educated. I read, read, read, read. And I spent years in the food industry." When it came to our cheese course, she applied her learning well, coaxing us toward an Italian asiago (a musty cow's-milk variety that's aged in a cave) while humoring our taste for cheddar with a sample of genuine English farmhouse. An aged gouda all but stood up and sang, and a Rouzaire Brie proved a delicate companion for our apples. "We have a really wide variety of customers," consoles Mary Bess, making us feel not quite so cheese-illiterate. "Some have absolutely no idea what they want--a lot of what we do here is education." And, she adds, she's always picking up knowledge: "I've got a lot of French customers who have discovered we carry some hard-to-find varieties. They make requests and teach me new things about cheese."