It’s a warm, wonderful Summer-like day, and I didn’t feel like doing any ‘real’ cooking (yes, even I feel lazy about cooking sometimes) so I just threw together—almost literally—this typical summertime salad of tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil that we’re all familiar with. This is a ‘composed’ salad like the salade nicoise, meaning you do not toss the ingredients but arrange them decoratively on a plate. Italians call this an insalata caprese, or just caprese for short, after the island of Capri, off the Amalfi coast in the southern Italian region of Campania. Of course, mozzarella comes from the Campania region, as do the best tomatoes in Italy. But apparently it is wrong to think that this salad actually comes from Capri. Here’s a story I found on the internet:
Probably like many people, I assumed (apparently incorrectly) that insalata caprese originated on Capri, or at least nearby in Campania, since the ingredients- tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basilico are so good there. In the latest issue of Gambero Rosso magazine, there is a little piece about the origins of the salad whereby a native of Capri, Constantino Moffa, who worked as a maitre d’ in a Swiss hotel had it for himself so often, and people took to it asking for what the person from Capri had. It made itself to the menu, and the rest is history.
For each dinner guest
- 1-2 tomatoes, depending on size and appetite
- One medium ball of fresh mozzarella cheese (see Notes)
- A spring of fresh basis
- Olive oil, q.b.
Arrange the tomato, mozzarella and basil leaves in alternating slices on a plate. Season generously with salt and pour a generous amount of fruity olive oil over the top.
Some people add a bit of vinegar—but don’t do it, it overpowers the delicate flavor of the mozzarella.
This is an extremely easy dish to make, obviously, but it can be difficult to find the right ingredients. Unless you use top quality ingredients, you will end up with a dish that is almost entirely uninteresting, which is why I never order this in a restaurant (outside of Italy, at least). You need the best quality olive oil–and only the deep green fruity kind, from southern Italy, will do. You also need ripe, deep red, tasty tomatoes, which is another challenge. In the US, you’ll need to either grow them yourself or buy them from a farmer’s market. Tomatoes are in season in the summer, as is basil, which is why this is a summer salad. I wouldn’t even attempt to eat this out of season. But yesterday I found some Mexican tomatoes in Whole Foods and, in fact, they were not half bad. And, although unorthodox, you can use cherry tomatoes, which tend to have more flavor.
And, finally, last but definitely not least, you need top quality fresh mozzarella. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Even in Italy, it can be difficult to find top quality mozzarella outside of its production zone, which extends from Campania up through the southern part of Lazio. We had some friends that live in Latina, not far from Rome but within the production zone, and they would serve the most wonderful mozzarella I had ever tasted, better than anything I could find in Rome, just a few kilometers away. Outside Italy, of course, things get even more challenging. In the US, the most common type of “mozzarella”–although I hesitate to even call it by that name–is the kind that is packed in plastic wrap. It has nothing to do with real mozzarella. You can use it for certain cooking tasks, but it is too tasteless and rubbery to eat raw. You can buy imported mozzarella but somehow more often than not, the texture is not quite right. Rather than being rubbery, the texture is too soft. Best quality mozzarella has a texture that is hard to describe, neither hard nor soft, almost ‘spongy’, and oozing with milk. Probably the best bet for those in the US are some of the new artisanal cheesemakers here, who make a decent imitation. In New York, the best place I know of for mozzarella is Joe’s Diary on Houston Street. Haven’t been there in years, but back in the day they made superb stuff on the premises. Their smoked mozzarella was to die for! (Note: Sadly, it seems that Joe’s Diary has closed for good.)
Mozzarella comes in two basic types: the ‘real’ mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffalo, and is called mozzarella di bufala and cow’s milk mozzarella, called fior di latte. If you can find the real kind, by all means use it for this dish. But I find that quality is more important. Mozzarella can be smoked, and I love the smoked variety when it is well made. Close to mozzarella, and very popular in Rome, is scamorza, which is also available smoked. Unusual for Italian cheese, it is usually not eaten raw but split in two and browned over a grill or on a griddle, either plain or topped with a slice of prosciutto or anchovies, it’s great.
Post-scriptum: A friend of mine who works at the Italian embassy recently told me that Costco carries fresh mozzarella flown directly from Caserta. Well, I tried it and, indeed, it is very, very good. The brand is fattorie Garofalo.