Saturday, July 28, 2012

Simply Perfect

For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Italy with the Syracuse Library Science program. At my library blog I’ll be writing about the course, and reflecting on international librarianship. Here, I’ll write about the food.

When chefs talk about great Italian food, over and over they use the word “simple”. Simple does not mean boring, and it does not mean conservative, it means combining a very small number of ingredients into spectacular results. Eating this food, one can clearly and dramatically taste each individual ingredient, and so each one must be of the highest quality. In Italy, the farmer who grows the tomato, or the baker who makes the bread, or the butcher who cures the prosciutto is as much of an artist as the chef who combines them – each one building off hundred years of collective cultural memory and experience in the pursuit of perfection.

Last night, we ate at Obika, a restaurant which celebrates one ingredient which is singularly Italian, mozzarella di bufala (or buffalo mozzarella) – mozzarella cheese made from the milk of the water Buffalo. Buffalo milk is richer than cow milk, and results in cheese with spectacularly wonderful taste and texture.

At Obika, we started off with a tasting of two mozzarellas. The pontina bufala classica (on the left, above) had a stronger taste than the mozzarella we’re used to – both more gamey (like buffalo or deer meat) and more funky (like lovely stinky cheeses) – although it was still mild compared to a blue or a brie. The texture was what blew me away. The outside of the ball was about as dense and chewy as the white of a hard-boiled egg, while the inside was loose without being runny or mushy. It was a continuous network of porous, soft, delicious cheese (so it didn’t crumble or break), and the pores were filled with a marvelous briny liquid, so that each bite burst in my mouth – fresh and clean and dazzling.

The affumicata bufala classica (on the right, above) was a smoked cheese. I don’t always love smoked goudas or gruy√®res – they often take on an odd, tough, rubbery texture and the smoke flavor can be overpowering. This cheese, however, was marvelous. The smoke only permeated the outer layer, giving it a lovely smoky flavor and a tougher texture than the pontina. The inside was untouched by the smoke curing, and was a bit looser and softer than the insides of the pontina. Since it was looser, it held more brine, which helped soften the impact of the smoke. Like a beautifully cooked steak or a perfectly ripe plum, each bite was a marvelous balance of textures and flavors.

We also ate a pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella (plus tomatoes, prosciutto, and arugula). It was a good, if not spectacular pizza, which didn’t really showcase the cheese. My brother (the best pizza chef I know) once made a pizza topped with only buffalo mozzarella, his own sauce, and basil. It was marvelous. The cheese melted beautifully, so a small amount spread evenly over the entire pizza. The slightly gamey, funky taste permeated each bite, and the cheese protected the integrity of the crust by serving as a barrier to the wet tomatoes. It was crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, beautiful in its simplicity.

Finally, at Obika, we had desserts made with ricotta di bufala (buffalo ricotta). I had a ricotta mouse (sweetened with honey), similar to canolli filling. Like the mozzarella, it had a marvelous texture – at once creamy and slightly stiff. It was studded with golden raisins and toasted pinenuts, and topped with candied orange zest. Every ingredient was essential, and every one was perfect.

My dinner mate had a buffalo ricotta torte, which was softer than the cheesecake we’re used to, beautifully light in texture and rich in taste. It was filled with rasberries and served with a strawberry sauce.

It was a spectacular meal – delicious, exciting, and simple. I can't wait for the next one.