Fresh buffalo mozzarella, locally made by an Italian cheese maker. That’s one delicacy I never expected to find within walking distance of my Tampa Bay home.
But the fates are kind. I’ve been eating this luxuriously milky cheese ever since Antonio Casamento started selling it at the Saturday Morning Market. It tastes more or less like the mozzarella di bufala I remember gorging on in Campania and Lazio, where mozzarella is taken so seriously that vendors apologize if their cheese was made more than a few hours earlier.
Water buffalo milk has about twice the butterfat of cow’s milk, which explains its sensuously rich taste. Buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy is likely to be close to a week old by the time it reaches American markets. That’s a problem, because this cheese is crazy perishable.
It’s better to buy buffalo mozzarella–or cow’s milk mozzarella, for that matter–from a source closer to home. But that’s not a sure thing, either. Antonio relates a dirty little secret about the domestically made buffalo mozzarella I’d spotted in a market. It was made in America, yes…but perhaps from frozen curds shipped from Asia or some other far-away place.
Antonio’s cheeses are the genuine article because he owns a herd of water buffalo, peacefully grazing on a farm near Plant City. His mozzarella (and some other cheeses, which I’ll get to in a minute) are made in Tampa by Luca Stajano, who mastered his craft in his family’s caseificio (cheese house) in Puglia.
Luca arrived only recently, but Antonio moved to the U.S. from Palermo in 1997 and had always dreamed of making his own buffalo mozzarella. “In Italy, we have a saying, ‘put your dream in a drawer,’ and that’s what I had to do,” he says.
Then one day he ran across an Internet ad promising “two free water buffalo to a good home.” One of them was even, like Antonio, Italian born, so he immediately took them on. Since then Antonio has built the herd, now 19 strong, all with dainty Italian names such as Bianca Neve (Snow White) and Regina (Queen).
The cheese-making shed looks like ones I remember seeing on family farms in Italy. There Luca transforms the milk into mozzarella, a process that calls for stretching and kneading a mass of curds to form smooth balls–not so different from a baker’s dough-making work. Luca weaves some of the mozzarella to make treccia, creates sheets (sfoglia) for rolls stuffed with greens and tomatoes, or forms burrata with super-creamier cores.
He also makes other cheeses in this pasta filata family. Smoked scarmorza and caciotta (the latter are flavored with sage, peppercorns, or spicy peppers) are firmer in texture. I enjoy them, but the buffalo mozzarella is my true love. Creamy ricotta, created from nutritious whey left over from cheese making, is a close second.
No reason to dream up a fancy way of serving fresh mozzarella when it’s this good. The perfect dish is an insalata caprese, alternating mozzarella and tomato slices. A drizzle of olive oil, sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper, a few basil leaves and you’re done. If great tomatoes aren’t on hand, the tang of roasted bell peppers, lightly pickled at home, balances the richness of the cheese–or just let the cheese stand alone.
Creamy ricotta like this is wonderful on crostini, in casseroles or as a pasta garnish. Or eat it for dessert, on its own, with a drizzle of honey.