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Wednesday, October 16, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Food

The other (soft, fresh, nothing like string cheese) mozzarella

Special to The Seattle Times

If the angels made cheese, they might make something that looks and tastes like fresh mozzarella.

I don't mean string cheese or the low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella that comes pre-grated or stuffed into plastic. Those are distant cousins to soft, milky, fresh mozzarella, a fragile food with a short life span. Usually packaged in water or brine, it's turning up more and more in supermarket cheese cases, at salad bars and even at Costco.

Mozzarella is an Italian invention, born in the countryside around Naples, where it was traditionally made from the milk of water buffalo.

It didn't appear on pizza until 1899, when a Neapolitan baker topped a plain crust with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil in homage to the red, white and green of the Italian flag and dubbed the creation Margherita after the queen.

"Fresh, warm mozzarella almost looks like a poached egg," says chef Walter Pisano of Tulio in the Hotel Vintage Park in downtown Seattle. "When it's still warm the taste is incredible."

He vividly recalls the exquisitely fresh cheese he was served at the Napa Valley restaurant Tre Vigne, where they make mozzarella twice a day.

"I shudder to think what that costs them," says Pisano, who made mozzarella at Tulio for a while, but found it wasn't workable. "The process is simple but it takes time, and the end product is so perishable that in a few hours the fresh cheese loses its softness."

Now he buys high-quality fresh mozzarella from wholesalers, but he often makes fresh cheese for special events such as wine dinners, and occasionally gives classes in mozzarella-pulling.

Chef Holly Smith also tried making mozzarella for Café Juanita, but she didn't like the quality of the curd she could purchase, so now she buys the cheese from both domestic and imported sources.

"I look for consistency in a product," Smith says, "For a while I was even paying retail prices for a cheese I liked that I could only get at Whole Foods."

At Armandino Batali's Salumi they wouldn't think of buying their fresh mozzarella. Every Monday and Thursday in Salumi's tiny kitchen, Ken Anderson spends about an hour transforming 20 pounds of solid cow's milk curd into bulbs of fresh cheese the size of tennis balls, most of which gets sliced and stuffed into sandwiches along with Batali's incomparable cured meats.

Anderson says, "We taught the guys at DeLaurenti," the Italian specialty-food shop in Pike Place Market, where they make it Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

At Salumi they never make much more than a couple of day's supply. "Within hours the delicate milky taste begins to change," says Anderson. "A firmer texture and a tangier flavor develop."

On Friday and Saturday nights, when Salumi hosts private parties (who've booked the place months in advance for a multicourse Italian feast), mozzarella-making is often part of the convivial dining experience. People love it, says Batali, and he sells mozzarella curd by the pound ($4) to foodies who want to turn it into cheese at home.

The curd is also sold at Larry's Markets for $6.99 a pound.

The name mozzarella derives from the Italian word "mozzare," meaning to break off. To make it, you start with a firm curd, a little like tofu in texture, which is broken up and softened with nearly boiling water to make it pliable.

While still hot, the now-elastic curd is quickly stretched and folded, like kneading bread dough, to press out air and water. The cheese takes on a porcelain sheen and quickly it's ready to be shaped into balls or twisted into braids. Like working with dough, the more you do it the more you get a feel for what the final product should look and feel like. Eat right away or store in the refrigerator in water for just a few days.

Until recently, there were no American producers of buffalo mozzarella, but that's changing. Renato Confalonieri, a retired chef turned cheesemaker, runs a California company called Bubalus Bubalis (the Latin name for water buffalo) that produces fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta. What started as a hobby with two animals in 1984 became a business venture with a herd of 200.

"I was losing $10,000 a day when I started production in 1999. This year we expect to reach $1 million in sales," says Confalonieri, whose company makes 3,000 pounds of cheese a week and in August won two gold medals at the Los Angeles County Fair.

The half-pound balls of Bubalus Bubalis, which retail for $7.99 at Whole Foods, are packed in water and wrapped in festive cellophane bags. Because freshness is paramount, Confalonieri airships cheese weekly to his Seattle-area distributor, Select Gourmet Foods.

"In Italy you don't eat buffalo mozzarella that's more than three days old," he says. "But distribution is the biggest enemy of cheesemakers in this country. For mass-produced cheese with a long shelf life it's not a big issue, but artisan cheesemakers have to create their own distribution."

Most of the mozzarella sold in this country is made from cow's milk. It's what the Italians would call "Fior di Latte" or flower of the milk. Usually sold in half-pound chunks or in small balls, called bocconcini, the cost averages about $8 to $10 per pound. Imported Italian buffalo mozzarella, which has a muskier flavor, can cost twice that.

Always check the expiration date and eat the cheese as soon as possible. A pack of mozzarella purchased at Costco in late August was stamped "Use by September 28," but long before that the cheese had gotten denser, less creamy and extremely tangy, definitely not the same delicate, light-hearted cheese that it was weeks before. While still edible at that point, the cheese works better in cooked dishes such as baked ziti or eggplant Parmesan than in salads or sandwiches.

It doesn't take much to make a meal out of a knob of fresh mozzarella. The cheese is like a blank canvas that invites the culinary artist to color it with flavor.

Its taste is so subtle that it brings other ingredients into sharper focus. Ripe tomatoes, roasted vegetables, olives, cured meats or pungent greens such as arugula all make splendid companions, joined ideally by a drizzle of good olive oil, salt, pepper and a crusty loaf of bread.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com.

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