So among the hurried preparations in this Atlantic County town for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, the baking of ricotta pies, ricotta cookies, and other Christmas pastries, and planning the Italian carols to be sung at Midnight Mass over at St. Anthony's - "O Bambino" is a local favorite - Bagliani's four gigantic provolone cheeses have generated much excitement.
"Once it's gone, people wait all year for this cheese to come back in. Customers will ask about it . . . did it get here yet? how's it aging? It's become part of their holiday ritual," said Paul Bagliani, a member of the third generation of the family running the grocery that was started by his grandfather Francis Bagliani in 1959.
The four 700-pounders arrive at the store from Wisconsin by the end of the summer so the semi-hard, cow's milk cheese can age in the back of shop, a process that involves turning the giants weekly to produce an even, sharp flavor. Provolone is usually made in sausage shapes no more than three feet long weighing about 50 pounds.
Then, usually on the first Friday in December, hundreds of people gather at Bagliani's - more than 300 came this year - to watch the first of the big cheeses cut up into smaller chunks weighing from six ounces to about a pound. There's usually live music, other foods and cheeses, of course, and a party atmosphere ensues in the small market on 12th Street, where the shelves of olives, tomato sauces, spices, artisan breads, and other pantry staples are moved aside. The crowd is so tightly squeezed in television monitors are set up so those in the back can see the cutting ritual.
The chunks of cheese are wrapped in clear, airtight packaging and sold for $12.99 a pound. The other three torpedoes are cut as needed over the next two months. A little more than two weeks in, the store is already on the second cheese.
"I have people that come in and buy 12-, 14-, 20-pound chunks of it," says Joe Sabatino, 53, Bagliani's "cheese man" and curator of the market's cheese department, which has evolved into a foodie destination.
Sabatino, who came up with the idea of bringing in the giant cheeses about seven years ago, wields a very sharp, double-handled knife to slice the colossal cheese and the other offerings, including a 100-pound mortadella, cured Italian pork sausage often eaten around the holidays.
With his encyclopedic knowledge of cheese and cheese pairings, Sabatino thinks the Christmas experience for Italian Americans involves many food traditions because the culture is so rooted in family - and when families get together, they like to eat.
"When people come in here to shop for their food for the holidays, it's all about the fact that their mother and their grandmother shopped here and they'll be able to buy the same things that made holidays special for generations . . . it's just a special thing," Sabatino said, standing beneath prehistoric-looking dried stockfish hanging from the ceiling, an integral part of the seven fishes feast.
Evelyn Penza, owner of Penza's Pies at the Red Barn Cafe in Hammonton, who turns out dozens of ricotta pies for Christmas, agrees.
"We used to only make the ricotta pies at Easter time because it was an Easter tradition, but in recent years, people want them at Christmas and it's nice to hear that they have become a Christmas tradition for so many customers," Penza said. She added pumpkin ricotta pie to the repertoire a couple of years ago, along with her five-fruit pie, a collection of all New Jersey fruits - cranberries, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, and apples.
People in Hammonton can't get enough ricotta cheese at Christmastime either, notes Jennifer Jones, owner of the From Scratch Bakery, also in Hammonton.
"I've been making ricotta cookies nonstop. Around the holidays, I have to make them three times a day, they sell out so fast," said Jones, who has perfected her recipe to produce a light, buttery, soft cookie. "I think because of all the farming and fresh produce and the blueberries, at the holidays people in this town really know what they like to eat."
So what about a blueberry and provolone confection?
"Hmmm, that might make a really interesting combo. I'm really going to have to think about that one," Red Barn's Penza said. "But not until after we get through the holidays."