Second Helpings

Where the Buffalo Roam: Once upon a time in this town, mozzarella cheese meant the hard, stringy, tasteless blobs that stretched across a cardboard-crust pizza.

About a decade ago, local Italian restaurants began to acquaint locals with the fresh version, which is more like what you'd find in Italy. It usually would come in the form of an appetizer, teamed with tomato and fresh basil, and drizzled with olive oil. These days, of course, it's become a menu cliche.

Fresh mozzarella is now so commonplace that even the supermarkets carry it. But what they sell is hardly the same thing you'd get back in the home country.

To Italians, mozzarella generally means a type of cheese derived strictly from the milk of water buffalo--mozzarella di bufala. Italians have been making it for almost two thousand years. Good as American, fresh, cow's-milk mozzarella may seem, it doesn't have the lingering sweetness and depth of flavor of mozzarella fashioned from water buffalo milk.

How can Arizonans, or any Americans, get this treat? It's tough--like most fresh dairy products, mozzarella di bufala doesn't travel well and doesn't keep long. Some is flown in to metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, but I've only run across it once or twice locally.

Our luck may change later this year. That's because an immigrant Italian cheesemaker, Virgilio Cicconi, headquartered in Southern California, is taking a big step--importing his own herd of Italian water buffalo. Sometime in 1998, his Italcheese Company will begin producing America's first mozzarella di bufala.

The company has been making fresh cow's-milk mozzarella for 15 years, ever since the founder's sister visited from Italy and urged him to get into the cheese business. She told him, "The stuff I eat when I visit you tastes like soap."

A spokesman told me the company has lined up a Phoenix vendor to handle the mozzarella di bufala, once the herd is settled and production gets under way during the next few months. At the moment, there's no word on which restaurants will serve it, or which retail outlets will carry it. But believe me, I'm going to make it my business to find out.

Remembrance of Things Pasta: Cheese isn't the only thing Italians know how to make. Pasta is another area of expertise, and right now probably no one's doing it better locally than Maria's When in Naples.

I had a "simple" meal here recently that was simply outstanding. The antipasto, teeming with marinated veggies, cheese, meats and seafood, has long been in a class by itself. So is the pasta. There's a variety of ravioli dishes, but I can't imagine they come any better than the model filled with mascarpone cheese, eggplant and broccoli rabe, coated in a light, summery tomato sauce ($14.95). Rotolo di pasta ($14.95) is just as compelling, sheets of pasta layered with spinach, prosciutto, roasted peppers and cheese, then rolled into a pinwheel of bursting flavors.

Maria's When in Naples is in the Scottsdale Promenade, at 7000 East Shea. Call 991-6887.

--Howard Seftel

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