The Joys of Summer: Salad Caprese
“No Italian would ever eat that. It’s an American invention.”
Thus was spoken with authority by a fellow traveler in Switzerland, and myMEGusta had no internet at her fingertips to prove him wrong. And he was insistent on the subject, even as she pointed out that the cuisine of Italy is hugely diverse, from the Alps to the toe, from Sicily to the deep interior.
OF COURSE it is Italian, a classic from the Isle of Capri. This combination of tomatoes and mozzarella, with a daub of pesto or fresh basil leaves, is beloved, and a plateful of heaven when made with top ingredients. Also known as Tricolore, it is said to been created to resemble the Italian flag; more likely, the name came after people had come to love the flavor combination.
It is so popular that variations show up all over, like the addition of balsamic vinegar or serving on a bed of lettuce (gilding the lily, but harmless). One delicious combination found in a long-forgotten restaurant, but wonderful, was heirloom tomatoes with pesto and a buttermilk mousse (OK, not mozzarella, but a relative). Sometimes, herbed smooth cheese is substituted.
No Italian would eat Styrofoam tomatoes and slabs of dry mozzarella (intended for adequate pizzas, not eating plain). But they, and the world, love the flavorful tomatoes of summer, whether from a backyard in Minnesota or a market in Munich. The most frequently seen in markets and on menus on a recent trip to France and Switzerland was the Coeur de Boeuf, or Beef Heart, tomato, as tasty as it is beautiful.
The mozzarella available now in the United States, if you shop carefullty, is light years better than it used to be.
The best mozzarella, IMHO, is the freshest:
It can be the bufala, made in Italy with the milk of water buffalos (no relation to the American bison of Yellowstone Park), oozy with a little tang. This is flown to the US, but can be hard to find and expensive.
It can be buratta, made fresh everywhere with a fresh mozzarella skin enveloping heavy cream and stracciatella cheese, exquisite and a super-caloric treat.
It can be freshly made, still warm fresh mozzarella from stores like Fratelli Market http://fratellimarketct.com/ in Stamford, CT, or on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where it is made continuously throughout the day.
Failing these options, the little “fresh” mozzarella balls you find in the supermarket will do in a pinch. Just stay away from the rubbery blocks whose only purpose is sit atop a bubbling pizza.