Don’t know about you, but I love cheese. Just about any kind. In our house we tend to eat more cheese during the cool winter months, but the arrival of warm weather doesn’t mean we give up cheese altogether. Far from it. Rather, aged cheese tends to give way to fresh cheeses like ricotta and—especially—mozzarella.
I will never forget the first time a true mozzarella in its production zone (Campania and southern Lazio). It was a revelation: a moist, soft but springy texture and a creamy taste with just a slightly tangy aftertaste (the sign of a true mozzarella di bufala, made with the milk of water buffalo). Sadly, real mozzarella does not travel well; even in Rome, just a few kilometers to the north, it was hard to find mozzarella that tasted as good as it did on its home turf. Don’t ask me why.
In this country, much of what is sold as ‘mozzarella’ is rubbery and tasteless, and, if you ask me, even ‘artisanal’ mozzarella is generally nothing to write home about. (One exception, the legendary Joe’s Dairy in New York, recently closed its doors.) Perhaps some day I’ll find a truly delicious mozzarella made locally, but in the meanwhile, the imported variety is well worth seeking out, especially if you want to eat your mozzarella uncooked, say in an insalata caprese.
Mozzarella in carrozza, literally “mozzarella cheese in a carriage”, is one of the rustic glories of Neapolitan cuisine. It’s a kind of savory French toast, or a kind of grilled cheese sandwich, only fried. Like either of these cousins, it’s rather easy to make. And very flexible, which is why this recipe doesn’t give much in the way of measurements—just keep going until you use up your bread and cheese. Count about 1-2 sandwiches per person as an antipasto, more if you’re hungry or using the dish as a piatto unico. The great thing about this dish is, you don’t need the best quality mozzarella di bufala to get acceptable results, although, of course, the better the cheese, the tastier the dish.
- Bread, preferably slightly stale, crust removed, cut into evenly shaped sliced (see Notes)
- Mozzarella cheese, sliced
- A bowlful of milk
- A bowlful of flour
- A bowlful of beaten eggs, seasoned with salt and pepper
- Olive or vegetable oil
- Lemon wedges (for garnish)
For the anchovy sauce (optional):
- A tin or jar of anchovy fillets
- A good pour of olive oil
- 1-2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
Take the slices of bread, then place a slice of mozzarella cheese between two of the bread slices to make a sandwich. (Make sure that the mozzarella slices are smaller than the bread slices, so that you have a good 1/2in/1 cm margin around the slices, to prevent the cheese from oozing out as it melts during cooking.)
Fill a large skillet with the oil, enough for a semi-deep fry, about 2cm/1 inch deep. While the oil is heating up, set up your ‘assembly line’: Line up the milk, flour and seasoned beaten egg, each in separate bowls, preferably right next to the frying pan. Have a grate at the ready for draining the sandwiches after they’re fried. Here was my set up:
Dip each mozzarella sandwich, on both sides, in the milk until nice and moist, then in the flour, then in the beaten eggs seasoned with salt and pepper, making sure the bread is well impregnated with the egg. Then fry each sandwich in the oil over moderately high heat until golden brown on each side—a few at a time so that you don’t crowd the frying pan. As the sandwiches are done, transfer them to the rack while you fry the rest.
When they’re all done, sprinkle the sandwiches with salt and serve immediately.
Mozzarella in carrozza is traditionally served just like this, perhaps with lemon wedges on the side. But I like to gild the lily by serving them with a bit of anchovy sauce: you empty a tin or jar of anchovies with some olive oil in a saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until the anchovies have broken up and are sizzling, then add a tablespoon or so of water. The anchovies will almost instantly form a smooth sauce. Add finely minced garlic (a garlic press works well here) and parsley. Stir once, then remove from the heat. You can spoon this sauce on top or around the sandwiches or, since anchovies can be ‘controversial’, in a sauceboat for those who want it.
As mentioned, this is a dish that will transform even supermarket mozzarella into something quite edible. Fresh mozzarella made with cow’s milk is definitely a step up, albeit still a bit rather bland. For either option, the anchovy sauce will help add interest. Best of all, use imported mozzarella di bufala, if you can find it. It’s available at better Italian delis, upscale supermarkets like Balducci’s, and, believe it or not, at Costco, where they sell Garofalo brand which, they say, is flown in overnight from Caserta. (I got that tip from a friend who worked at the Italian embassy.)
Best quality mozzarella tends to be rather runny, so let the slices drain for a minute or two and pat them dry before using them. And whatever kind of mozzarella you buy, be sure to serve the sandwiches soon after they’re cooked. Even best quality mozzarella tends to harden disagreeably if melted and left to cool too much.
As for the bread, good quality sandwich bread (called pan carrè in Italian), should work fine and is used by many Italians. Personally, I like homemade or artisan round breads for their firmer, chewier texture. Speaking of which, bread that is a day or two (or more) old works very well. In fact, it is likely that this dish (like French toast) was invented to make good use of stale bread. A firm texture is what you need—if the bread it too fresh or too soft, it may fall apart when dipped in eggs and milk. When using loaf bread, the slices are typically trimmed and cut into triangular wedges. If using a rustic loaf, you can use a cookie cutter to cut rounds out of the slices, or simply cut them with a knife into squares.
The mozzarella sandwiches are traditionally fried in olive oil, and it really is the best way to do it. But you need not use your best extra virgin olive oil for the task. In fact, ‘pure’ olive oil, perhaps enriched with a good pour of extra virgin for flavor, work well at less cost. In a pinch, canola or other vegetable oil will do fine, although again, what you lose in flavor you should make up with extra seasoning.
The dish is easy to make, if a bit messy. The only tricky part is making sure the sandwiches don’t fall apart in the frying process. Besides using the right kind of bread, make sure not to overstuff the sandwiches with cheese. If you do, the slices of bread will not make contact and adhere one to the other. Then you need to make sure that the egg—which will bind the bread slices together—impregnates the bread. To do that, you can even leave the sandwiches in the egg for a few minutes before frying. Then allow the sandwich to fry until golden brown before turning it over:this will ‘set’ the egg. Finally, turn the sandwiches carefully, using a flat spatula and a fork or spoon to support the sandwich as you turn it. Then let it cook thoroughly on the other side.
There are various ways to dip the sandwiches. The ingredients are always the same: milk, flour and seasoned egg. But some recipes call for mixing the egg and milk together: you dip the sandwich in the egg and milk, then in the flour, then back in the egg and milk. Or, you can actually mix all three ingredients to make a kind of batter—or pastella, as they call it in Italian, in which you dip the sandwiches. See which way suits you best.
There are some variations. You can add an anchovy filet on top of the mozzarella as part of the ‘stuffing’ or you can add a slice of ham. In either case, omit the anchovy sauce, which would be redundant in the first case and discordant in the second.
Mozzarella in carrozza is usually thought of as an antipasto, but I find it satisfying enough to serve as a piatto unico, or one dish meal, or as a savory snack. Follow it with a green salad and some fruit. Accompany with a robust wine, either white or red.
By the way, if you have leftover beaten egg, don’t throw it away: Add a few spoonfuls of any leftover flour, then add some grated cheese (either Parmesan or pecorino) and some chopped parsley, together with a good grind of pepper. Fry this very loose batter in the olive oil. You’ll wind up with some free-form egg fritters that might not be very pretty, but are really tasty.