There are things that you can miss for many years and not know it. Some that come to mind are great sex, true love, self-esteem and real mozzarella. The first three things I managed to find by looking hard enough, in marriage and in work. But mozzarella remains the most elusive. “I could cry salty tears; where have I been all these years?” so runs the Gershwin song, and the “salty tears” part is right on. I shed them when I first ate great mozzarella, and so did the mozzarella. I stumbled across it in New Jersey when I was 23, and I didn’t find great mozzarella again for another 10 years, until after a decade of exile, I went back to Hoboken, N.J., divorced, defeated and skeptical of my own milky memories.
It is shockingly hard to find great mozzarella in America. How hard it is hit me the other day in Los Angeles at Osteria Mozza, one of the most celebrated restaurants in America, and one so committed to serving great mozzarella that it actually named itself for the stuff. When I went to the four-year-old osteria, which was created by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, I had the $26 tasting: burrata, fior di latte and a smoked bufala mozzarella. All three were pretty good, but pretty good isn’t good enough. For instance, the fior di latte, made from cow’s milk rather than a water buffalo’s, was done in-house and had no excuse for being cold and bland. Perhaps I’m cursed by having had the real deal, and connected with it in the weird way we do with our most intense experiences. Having had it great a few times, and finding it so rarely, not even in a great restaurant named after it, made me sad. Maybe I would be happier if I had never tasted an outstanding version. That’s how it is for me with schnitzels and dessert wines and haircuts. I haven’t had a great one yet. But every wan and waxy bite of mediocre mutz is a rebuke, a violation. It’s like a great, scratched record that you can never listen to without wincing.
(MORE: Six Things I Want to Eat in 2011)
I am guessing that I sound merely peevish to you. And maybe I am. Effete food writers like me spend altogether too much time bitching about food not being sublime enough. But if you have ever stood at a sink, tearing apart soft and sapid braids of still warm mozzarella, the milk coursing down your hands as you consume what feels for all the world like living tissue, you might react differently.
It’s not like the dairies around you can’t get the ingredients. It’s merely a question of what they do with them. The best I ever had was at a small deli in Hoboken called Fiore’s, which since 1913 has been making fresh mozzarella from the curds and fresh ricotta from the whey, and which has ruined me for life for both cheeses. Thanks a lot, Fiore’s. When I went back years later and tasted the warm, slightly gelatinous, quiveringly fresh product, it was akin to, in G.K. Chesterton’s phrase, “a dead man remembering life.” A great mozzarella is so distinctive and so awe-inspiring (and, yes, awesome too) that you couldn’t possibly confuse it with the regular kind.
Why? Start with the taste. Real mozzarella tastes like milk. Not, as at my tasting at Mozza, like water or salt or whatever it’s dressed with. The bona fide article has tanginess, heft, pliability — it comes in the form of a big braid rather than a simple loaf that can be sliced up however you please. The braids, when you tear them, have a longitudinal grain, a fiber that wants to break in only one direction. It will break, if you pull it hard enough; but unlike the soft blobs of mozzarella di bufala which come in plastic containers from Campagna and which have no real structure of their own, a good mozzarella will pull back too.
The texture comes from the maker knowing how to pull the cheese in hot water, and sadly, there aren’t a lot of people who do that really well right now. (Here’s a great video of Chris from Fiore’s showing how it’s done.) When it comes to fresh mozz, as a nation we’re where pizza was 20 or 30 years ago. Part of the problem is that the imported bufala is so good, a chef can be forgiven for just choosing to open one up, put it on a plate with some tomatoes and balsamic vinegar, and call it a day. But part of it is also the government’s fault. The FDA, in its often violent effort to stamp out dangerous animalcules, insists that all fresh mozzarella be plunged into an ice bath and kept in a refrigerator where it recoils like a frightened bride on her wedding night. (It’s amazing that the government can be so far-sighted and judicious about their policy toward clean air, fracking and mountaintop removal, but so draconian when it comes to policing milk.)
My feeling is that if you can’t get someone to make you great mozzarella — warm and milky and fibrous and yielding and unspeakably delicious — you shouldn’t bother with it at all. Get a first-rate pizza cheese like Grande, from Wisconsin, for your pies and eat some kind of local cow’s milk cheese the FDA doesn’t know about as your antipasto. If you happen to live near someplace that imports burrata or real mozzarella di bufala, leave it out on the counter for two hours and then have some, with some coarse salt on it. But whatever you do, don’t settle for so-so. Life is too short for bad mozz.