For most folks, mozzarella means pizza covered with a gooey melted mass of cheese appreciated more for elasticity than flavor. Like cheddar, mozzarella—second to cheddar as America’s most popular cheese—has been industrialized. Today the vast majority of mozzarella is lifeless and rubbery with a shelf life measured in presidential terms.
But there’s more to mozzarella. Freshly made mozzarella from artisan hands has a milky, buttery sweetness that begs to be eaten again and again with nothing more than crusty bread and a drizzle of olive oil.
However, now that we can get fresh local tomatoes and fresh basil that doesn’t look as if it were grown in a test tube, fresh mozzarella reaches its culinary summit. Alternate slices of mozzarella, sliced local tomatoes, and fresh basil leaves, sprinkle with olive oil and, as the wise guys in New York would say, fuggedaboudit.
“When you cut into fresh mozzarella and that milky liquid oozes out, you know you’ve got that cow sitting right next to you,” says Lou Todaro, whose Todaro Brothers store in New York makes mozzarella fresh daily.
While all mozzarella in the United States, and much of what is produced in Italy, comes from cow’s milk, the original mozzarella—mozzarella di bufala—is made from buffalo milk in southern Italy. Indeed, technically speaking, cow’s milk mozzarella isn’t mozzarella at all but fiore di latte or “flower of the milk.” However, like Parmesan, mozzarella has become so ubiquitous that such distinctions are no longer made.
Even the term mozzarella di bufala has been expanded. In September 1998, the Italian government allowed that term to be applied to mozzarella made from buffalo milk outside seven previously restricted zones, primarily in the region of Campania, but also in Lazio and Apulia. Nonetheless, only buffalo milk mozzarella made within these zones can be a designated regional product by the rules of the Italian government and the European Economic Community. The designation is manifested by a green and red logo with the head of a water buffalo in the middle. Standards for production are monitored by the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Mozzarella Di Bufala Compana.
Water buffalo were introduced into Italy in the seventh century. Cecilia Baratta Bellelli, whose family has raised water buffalo in the province of Salerno, south of Naples, since the 1800s, says the climate and high mineral content of the soil of the area contribute to the quality of the buffalo milk, which has three times the butterfat of cow’s milk as well as higher amounts of calcium and protein. In addition, she says, “Here people know how to make the cheese.”
So do Americans, as I found out by watching Lou Todaro in the back of his store. Like virtually all mozzarella makers in the United States, Todaro makes his cheese from purchased curd, the solids formed after milk has coagulated and been separated from its liquid (whey). The creamy white curd is first shredded into a large metal bowl through the strings of an implement appropriately called a chitarra (guitar). Hot water is mixed in until a porcelain-white mass forms. The new cheese is pulled and stretched with the aid of a paddle until it reaches a smooth, soft, and pliable consistency. This technique is also used for provolone and other cheeses in the family called pasta filata, meaning cheese that is spun or pulled from a curd.
Once stretched, the cheese is torn and formed into various shapes. The tearing, mozzare in Italian, gave rise to the name mozzarella. The skill of the cheesemaker in stretching, tearing, and forming is a major factor in the quality of the finished mozzarella. Unsalted mozzarella is preserved in cool water, while other mozzarella is salted in a brine solution for about 30 minutes.
Mozzarella gets twisted into more shapes than the balloons from those sidewalk performers. The most common is a round or oval half- or one-pound piece. Traditional mozzarella makers add a knob at the top of the larger pieces, some of which may be aged for scamorza. Scamorza is mozzarella dried out for a few days so that it becomes firmer. Or it may be aged longer so that it develops a rind and tastes somewhere between mozzarella and provolone. Longer-aging mozzarella becomes caciocavallo. Mozzarella is also smoked, usually with hickory chips.
Mozzarella is often pulled into long strands. The strands may be twisted into braids. Or they may be knotted and cut into bocconcini, “little mouthfuls,” which are often marinated in olive, garlic, herbs, and hot pepper flakes and used as part of an antipasto. The pliability and subtle flavor of mozzarella lends itself to being stuffed, traditionally with a nut of butter for manteca. More commonly, mozzarella is rolled up into a log with sheets of prosciutto, then sliced into pinwheels.
As Pamela Sheldon Johns notes in “Italian Food Artisans” (Chronicle Books), buffalo milk mozzarella “was not developed to preserve milk as most cheeses were. It was made to feature the fresh flavors of the milk, best consumed within forty-eight hours.” Ironically, this works against mozzarella di bufala eaten in the United States because it is at least three days old by the time it reaches retailers here, and often a few days more. Thus, the two I tried, La Garofalo and Allevatori Bufalini Casertani, though delicate and creamy (and somewhat acidic), lacked that sweet, milky, and buttery goodness of fresh locally made cheeses. The handmade mozzarella from four New York producers, Todaro Brothers, DiPalo’s Fine Foods, Inc, and Russo Mozzarella & Pasta, was incomparable. With freshly sliced prosciutto, they were astonishing. (In Philadelphia, Claudio’s in the Italian Market on 9th Street in South Philly is the mozzarella king.)
This shouldn’t be surprising, says Todaro. “We have some of the best milk in the world here in New York and in Wisconsin. I’ve brought Italians over and they marvel at the quality of our curd,” he says. Some mozzarella makers, like DiPalo’s, have curd made to their specifications.
For three years, Paula Lambert, founder and owner of the Mozzarella Company in Dallas, made mozzarella from the milk of buffalo raised in Arkansas. But the process was discontinued when the milk became difficult to obtain. Her cow’s milk mozzarella, which was eaten between 48 and 72 hours after it was made, wasn’t nearly as good as the same-day local cheese. However, it was quite comparable to local mozzarella of the same age. Lambert’s smoked mozzarella, smoked over pecan shells, was less overpowering than others, though I’m not a fan of smoked mozzarella.
Another difference between mozzarella di bufala and artisan American mozzarella is that former ripens, while the latter ages. Thus, after a few days in the refrigerator, mozzarella di bufala breaks down, becoming almost spreadable. At this stage it is too soft for slicing and too moist for pizza. However, it’s dandy tossed with pasta, chopped plum tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. While American mozzarella isn’t as moist, it should still dry out for a few days before being put on pizza. Whichever fresh mozzarella you use, always buy it salted for maximum flavor.
And always buy it and eat it on the day it is made. Fresh mozzarella’s charm begins to fade noticeably on the second day, though it’s still light years ahead of the stuff that’s been sitting in the dairy case for months.
My best suggestion for enjoying mozzarella is a weekend brunch of fresh mozzarella with a variety of condiments: roasted red bell peppers, olives, prosciutto, fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, fresh basil leaves, olive oil, sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, and crusty Italian bread. Wash it all down with a Dolcetto d’Alba. Fuggedaboudit.