NAPLES, Italy—Mozart’s symphonies, massages on demand, and showers giving a fine mist on hot days—these amenities might not sound out of place at a spa. But on a buffalo farm? Well, that’s a different story.
It was on a trip through the Italian region of Campania that a fellow traveler insisted that I not only had to try some mozzarella from Tenuta Vannulo, an organic farmstead, but also bring some back home. It was his plan, and it should be my plan, too, he said. I would be a hero in the eyes of friends and family.
The Vannulo estate is only a 15-minute drive from the ancient Greek ruins of Paestum, and it’s a must-visit for food lovers. It draws tourists from all over, but on this spring morning, with brisk traffic in and out of the parking lot, the lilt of Italian could be heard everywhere.
Stepping out of the vehicle and onto the farm in Capaccio, there was no bovine in sight, but my nose told me they were there. A gamey, wild smell, touched with wetness, mud, and hay, yanked me out of my reverie.
Dozens of visitors lined up at the shop that sold buffalo mozzarella by the pound. In another building, staff at the popular gelato and yogurt shop attended to the hungry. Buffalo milk yogurt was offered in flavors ranging from apricot to strawberry. It was intriguing, leaving a dry, slightly gamey aftertaste.
A few steps away, a guide pointed visitors to a glass window. On the other side, men in white, working in pairs, dipped their bare hands into a pool of cloudy water in a stainless steel tank, and pulled on a long, white elastic substance, forming balls out of it.
Outside, a guide brought some samples, little shiny white balls marked with just the tiniest knob where it had been pulled away.
In another part of the farm, the buffalo stood together in a corral, placid and curious, sleek in their black coats, looking at their human visitors with gentle eyes.
It turns out that at Vannulo, these animals lead a charmed life, pampered by massages and soothed by classical music from 7 to 9 every morning. They are milked only when they want to be. Sophisticated machinery recognizes the microchipped buffalo when it enters the milking area, and with the aid of a laser, finds the udder and starts milking.
Each buffalo is milked two or three times a day, until it meets its two-gallon milk quota. By comparison, dairy cows produce about eight gallons a day.
It was only later that I learned that Vannulo’s “zero kilometer” mozzarella is legendary and is only sold at the farm. Vannulo’s production is very limited, yielding only 300 kilograms (about 661 pounds) of mozzarella per day. Italian chefs and restaurateurs I met on my return to New York sung its praises: “It’s the best!” One chef pulled me aside and whispered, “After Vannulo, everything else is garbage!”
That may have been an exaggeration—but true enough, a bite of Vannulo’s mozzarella is a revelation. In a bite, the ball bursts with flavors of milk, hay, and grass, and tastes incredibly fresh and pure. And then after you’ve eaten it, the taste—that milkiness with that slight touch of game and hay—lingers and lingers and lingers. It is nothing like those rubber ball-like things that try to pass themselves off as mozzarella.
When you eat it straight off the farm, it’s as fresh as it comes. Italians who get the mozzarella directly from the producer don’t even store it in the fridge—it would ruin the texture—but leave it in the brining liquid at room temperature.
Two Italians based in Paestum, Barbara Guerra and Albert Sapere, have endeavored to shine a spotlight on mozzarella with a yearly conference called LSDM, Le Strade della Mozzarella, or The Many Roads of Mozzarella. Their goal is to raise awareness about high quality Italian food products.
The first conference took place in 2008, with just about three or four chefs hailing from Campania. It has since gone international with over 50 chefs. This year was the first time that the conference came to the United States, taking place in Manhattan late last month.
One year renowned chef Massimo Bottura made a dish called The North That Wanted to Become the South. It featured a pizza, traditionally from the south, made with a crust of dehydrated polenta, topped with a “sauce” of risotto made with buffalo mozzarella. (Rice and polenta are considered northern Italian ingredients.)
Guerra remembers being at Vannulo and hearing music being played for the buffalo. “I think that at the moment the most interesting approach is precisely linked to the animal’s welfare. When the buffalo lives well, she produces a higher quality milk, which helps to make the most delicious mozzarella,” she said.
In addition to Campania, buffalo mozzarella is also produced in several other parts of Italy, including Lazio, Puglia, and Molise. Each has its own terroir and its own taste.
Guerra said: “In my experience, I can say that Italian foodies, and in general the most discerning consumers not only often do have their own preference for a mozzarella made in a given area rather than another, but they even have preferred producers, too.”
In America, buffalo mozzarella presents a couple of challenges.
One is that while mozzarella should be eaten as fresh as possible—within five days, she said. “Unfortunately, due to the long trip [to North America] and to the times of the supply chain, the risk is that it gets on the American tables when it is no more at its best,” according to Guerra.
Another challenge is one common to many Italian products—authenticity. “There are so many products on sale here which have ‘mozzarella’ written on their labels, but don’t have anything in common with the original Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP. Unfortunately, this contributes creating a huge confusion amongst American consumers,” Guerra said.
The logistics haven’t stopped restaurants from importing buffalo mozzarella directly from Italy. Some restaurant concepts are even based on mozzarella.
Obicà Mozzarella Bar, for example, has locations throughout the world, from Tokyo to London. The name means “here it is” in the Neapolitan dialect, a reference to the immediacy and freshness of the cheese. Mozzarella is flown in from Italy twice a week.
Obicà offers different types from the classic to a smoked variation, to burrata with black truffle. Mozzarella offers a versatile canvas for Italian accompaniments with more pronounced flavors, from summery caponata to savory-sweet prosciutto.
At Mozzarella & Vino in Midtown Manhattan, buffalo mozzarella is also flown in twice a week. The restaurant’s chef, Vito Gnazzo, prefers different pairings depending on the season. “In the summer, I like it light and simple—fresh smoked mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes, prosciutto, olive oil, and basil,” he said. “In the colder months, I love a warm farro salad with smoked mozzarella.”
If you’re looking to pair mozzarella with a wine, take the advice of Gianfranco Sorrentino, the owner of Mozzarella & Vino. He loves mozzarella enough to visit new producers at 4 a.m. to sample their fresh mozzarella when he is in Naples. An advocate for wines from Campania, he said, “The best wines are from the old age, the ones that Cicerone, Plinio, and Tibullo have written about; wines like the Falerno, the Greco, and the Caleno were all considered the wines of the emperors.”
For mozzarella, he recommends the Fiano d’Avellino or Pallagrello Bianco.
Bringing It Home
If you are visiting Italy, you can bring some mozzarella back to the United States—it’s legal and you don’t have to hide it. Just make sure it’s packed in the brine it came in, and keep it in your checked luggage, not carry-on.
After my visit to Vannulo, I stashed a Styrofoam chest full of zero-kilometer mozzarella into my luggage—and boy, did it take it some space. But the look of wonder when family members took that first bite was worth it. Their mouths were full but their eyes said it: It was the best they’d ever had.