A Cheesemaker's Buffalo Dreams

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the dispassionate observer, there is little beautiful--and certainly not lovable--about a water buffalo. It is large and hairy and has an unfortunate affection for muddy bogs.

To Virgilio Cicconi, however, the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a vision. Looking out at the grazing water buffaloes at a Dutch dairy farm in Norwalk--about a mile from Pioneer Boulevard's Little Bombay and right around the corner from what might be California's best Thai restaurant--he describes the first time he encountered the creatures with the passion of the love-struck.

"You believe in love at first sight?" he asks his Italian accent still thick after 30 years in California. "It was the 28th of April last year I went to look at them. They looked at me just like that, you know," he says, pulling a moony face and looking deeply into the eyes of one of the buffaloes, which stands on the other side of the fence, calmly chewing hay, knee-deep in muck. "I don't know, the way they're hairy or whatever. You can just tell these are really nice animals. They're intelligent."

Cicconi, barrel-chested and full of bullish energy himself at 67, calls several buffaloes by name--Blondie, Tiny, Lela--as if they were pet dogs. More like cats, it turns out. They look up at him, ponder for a moment and then go on about their business.

"This is, how can I say, this is just like you talk with somebody who is old and went three times around the world. They've had a lot of problems and they know about life. If he talks, you listen."

In all honesty, Cicconi's relationship to the water buffalo is not entirely pure-minded. You see, Cicconi's real first love--and his business--is mozzarella. And to make mozzarella, the real stuff, you've got to have water buffaloes.

And so Cicconi--the man whose Italcheese company introduced much of Southern California to fresh mozzarella, turning what was once an exotic rarity into a supermarket staple--prepares to make his next leap toward cheese immortality.

A bit of definition is necessary. The mozzarella everyone knows--that hard ball that resembles an art gum eraser--bears no more resemblance to the real thing than that stuff in the green shaker can does to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It, too, is an invention of convenience, intended to feed the pizza industry.

But you cognoscenti shouldn't be too smug. What you probably think of as real mozzarella--the white, cake-like ball of fresh cheese sold in water--isn't technically mozzarella either. Until recently, what we think of as real mozzarella had to be labeled fior di latte in Italy; it's made from cow's milk, but to be called mozzarella, the cheese had to be made from water buffalo milk.

With the dwindling of Italian water buffalo herds after World War II and the growing popularity of cow's milk mozzarella, the legal definition in Italy has been relaxed.

Regardless, until Cicconi started making fresh mozzarella at his Italcheese factory, all of this was academic. The only mozzarella you could find in a Southern California supermarket was pizza cheese.

It was in 1983, spurred on by a combination of ecological disaster and sisterly advice, that Cicconi set out to remedy Southern California's sorry mozzarella situation.

Cicconi and his brother Jerry, originally from Benedetto del Tronto on Italy's Adriatic coast, spent almost 20 years fishing for swordfish off Catalina Island. When gill-netting stripped the channel waters of swordfish, he began casting about for something to do.

"Why don't you make cheese?" asked his sister, who still lives in Italy. "The stuff I eat when I visit you tastes like soap." Just like that, Cicconi, then in his mid-50s, was a mozzarella maker.

Well, not quite that easily. Mozzarella is a tricky cheese to work. To get the curd to stretch the way it should takes a series of fairly exacting steps.

To make mozzarella from scratch, the milk is first set, using a bacterial culture that converts the lactose sugar into lactic acid, and rennet, the stuff that actually forms the curd. When the mixture solidifies into curd, it is cut into cubes, drained of its whey (which is used to make ricotta), washed with fresh water and again drained well.

When the curd has developed just the right acidity (technically, acidifying the cheese converts the dicalcium paracasein to monocalcium paracasein, changing the texture), it is heated in 180-degree water and worked by repeated pulling and stretching into a smooth, shiny ball. Then it is soaked in a brine for flavor.

On the East Coast, where it seems every little Italian enclave has a few delicatessens selling homemade fresh mozzarella, most are actually only home-finished. The vast majority of store owners buy prepared curd from one of a small group of dairies and then do the final hand-shaping in the blistering hot water themselves.

Italcheese doesn't shape its cheese by hand. Rather, it uses a machine imported from Italy that does the final kneading and stretching. The cost is a somewhat less delicate texture. On the other hand, Cicconi is able to make enough fresh mozzarella to stock a good portion of the supermarkets in Southern California. Besides, fresh mozzarella makers are famous for their swollen arthritic knuckles and boiled pink skin.

Still, as Cicconi will tell you, any number of things can go wrong in the making of curd. After getting instructions from one of his sister's friends who was a cheese maker, he started trying to make mozzarella. After a month, he still wasn't close.

Living on Catalina, he was working out of a small rented industrial space in Carson. Every Friday he'd return to the island, taking home nothing but dirty laundry and a couple of pounds of failed curd to feed to a friend's dog.

"I tried everything," he says. "I used different times and different temperatures. Nothing worked. Then came the day I had to face reality. I had spent $36,000 building a cheese factory and never made any cheese anybody could eat except for Bruno the dog.

"I said to myself, 'What can I do? There are no more swordfish. I am already old. I cannot pick up and build things any more because I have a lot of pain in my arms.'

"I called the people to come out and start breaking up the factory, this factory that never was a factory--a factory is something that works.

"That's when my wife called and said, 'You know that cheese you brought over last weekend? I was doing some pasta for the kids, so I put a little of the cheese in hot water like I saw you do and it stretched. I made it into a little ball and put some salt on it and ate it. It was good.'

"Oh, I tell you, I put that phone down and went outside and jumped up and down. I took the van and drove down to San Pedro. The next boat to Catalina was in three hours, but there was a guy with a helicopter. He put me down at Pebbly Beach. From Pebbly Beach to my house was about a mile, but I ran so fast nobody could beat me. I was like a rabbit.

"When I reached home, my wife opened the refrigerator and took some paste, she put it in the hot water and it stretched. We jumped up and down. I was crazy."

Success was still a way off, but a crucial hurdle had been crossed. The problem, Cicconi says, was that the milk he was using contained antibiotics; most Italian milk doesn't. The antibiotics killed off much of the bacterial culture that was needed to acidify the milk, making it take much longer than his cheese-making manual had recommended.

For this reason, many American dairies acidify their milk for mozzarella by adding vinegar or lemon juice, a compromise that neither creates that distinctive yogurt-like tang nor confers the health benefits of the active bacterial culture. In Italy, cheese made from milk treated with vinegar cannot be called mozzarella.

In order to continue making his mozzarella with the active bacterial culture, Cicconi has to search out and buy milk that is free of antibiotics. Today, he gets all of his milk from Kuhn Farms, a wholesale dairy in El Centro. He also relies heavily on the bacterial culture and advice of Claudio Mozzoni of Pescara, one of Italy's leading dairy consultants.

Italcheese had the fresh mozzarella field practically to itself for several years, but today there are several local companies making it, including Italia Latticini, Caseificio Gioia and Tutto Latte.

And so, in his single-minded, love-blind way, Cicconi is pushing ahead to make true mozzarella di bufala. This time, he won't just be the only person in Southern California to make it but perhaps the only one in the United States.

"I believe the future of fresh mozzarella in this country is just like in Italy," Cicconi says. "In Italy, there has been a big increase in the fresh mozzarella, but the huge increase was in the buffalo mozzarella. When people have money, they understand this is a better product and they go for it. Why shouldn't the same thing happen here?"

Mozzarella made from buffalo milk is even a little softer than the cheese made from cow's milk. It has a rich, earthy, yogurt-like flavor that may surprise those expecting the bland sweetness of mozzarella.

"People who like buffalo mozzarella like that taste--they really go crazy for it," Cicconi says. "But some people won't like it. My wife doesn't eat buffalo mozzarella because she hates that taste. . . . But she also hates caviar and truffles."

Cicconi shrugs. How can you explain taste? He's married for 35 years to someone who doesn't like buffalo mozzarella. How can you explain love?

"You cannot compare this cheese with anything else," he says. "It is delicious. It leaves your mouth just like it's oily. You eat it and it melts in your mouth. It's not just the fat, it's also the flavor. It's different."

Of course, again there are hurdles. In addition to buffalo milk being even more sensitive to temperature and acidity than cow's milk, there is the primary challenge of finding it. There are only about 3,500 water buffaloes in this country; most of Cicconi's herd comes from either the Turkey Creek Co. in Texarkana, Ark., or B&B; Ranch near Fresno.

Today, Italcheese keeps more than 30 water buffaloes mixed in with assorted cows, goats and other livestock at the Norwalk dairy farm run by John and Tanya Vanderham. At first, there were just Too Tall Jones, Momma 2 and Duchess at Norwalk. Then Cicconi got Lela and Kay, named after his daughter and wife. Then Precious, Easter and Sweet Pea. More followed.

It takes a lot of water buffaloes to make cheese worthwhile. Cicconi is getting about a gallon of milk a day per animal at this point, and even in established herds a buffalo will give only 3 1/2 to 4 gallons a day. In contrast, a cow will easily produce twice that. On the other hand, water buffalo milk is so high in butterfat that a gallon will make 2 1/2 pounds of cheese, as opposed to 14 to 16 ounces per gallon of cow's milk.

On top of that, buffalo milk mozzarella pulls a premium price. While his regular fresh mozzarella sells for $3 to $3.50 per half-pound package, the bufala will go for $8 to $8.50.

"Look at some of those big cheese companies, and they've been in business for so long that they don't realize the world is changing," he says. "Why didn't they get into buffalo mozzarella? What's the difference between us and them? They have all the money they want and I've got to scrounge with my partners to get the money to buy buffalo.

"You think I want to be a cowboy? No. Am I crazy? Maybe, but you see, sometimes crazy people do things. The guy who goes to bed thinking everything is fine is the guy when he wakes up has nothing."

Where will it all end? Cicconi can't say. Every week it seems he adds another cow to his herd.

"When will I stop? That depends on how old I get," he says. "I don't think I want to put a number to stop. I want to grow as much as I can. I'm buying buffalo all the time. It's not that I want a monopoly or whatever, I just want to feed Southern California with mozzarella di bufala."

MOZZARELLA-STUFFED CABBAGE (Involtini di Cavolo) (VEGETARIAN)

From "A Fresh Taste of Italy," by Michele Scicolone (Broadway Books, 1997, $30).

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling pan

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 cups canned chopped tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

8 large Savoy cabbage leaves

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-

Reggiano

Cook garlic in 3 tablesponns oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until pale gold, about 30 seconds. Stir in parsley, then add tomatoes, oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Bring sauce to simmer and cook until thickened, 15 to 20 minutes.

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add cabbage leaves and salt to taste. Cook until leaves are tender, about 2 minutes. Remove leaves with slotted spoon or tongs and drain on paper towels. Pat leaves dry.

Spoon half of sauce into oiled 9-inch-square baking pan. Cut mozzarella into 8 pieces. Place 1 piece near base of each cabbage leaf. Roll up leaf, tucking in sides to make neat package. Place cabbage rolls in pan, seam-side down. Spoon on remaining sauce and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bake at 375 degrees until sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.

4 servings. Each serving:

307 calories; 598 mg sodium; 49 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.73 gram fiber.

MOZZARELLA GRILLED ON SKEWERS, ROMAN-STYLE (Spiedini alla Romana) (30 MINUTES OR LESS)

From "Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1994, $24.95).

1 baguette or thin loaf Italian bread

1 1/2 pounds fresh mozzarella

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling pan

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

8 whole anchovies in salt or 16 anchovy filets in oil, drained

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

4 sprigs Italian parsley

Cut bread and mozzarella into 1/2-inch-thick slices. You will need 16 slices of mozzarella and 20 slices of bread.

Thread 4 bamboo or metal skewers, starting with bread and alternating 5 slices of bread with 4 slices of cheese. Press end slices toward center to pack closely together. Place skewers on oiled baking sheet. Brush with 2 tablespoons oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Broil at 375 degrees, about 6 inches from heat source, until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Check frequently to make sure bread doesn't burn.

Meanwhile, if anchovies are preserved in salt, clean under cool running water, removing bones.

Heat butter and remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy saucepan over low heat. When butter is completely melted, remove pan from heat. Add anchovies and mash with fork until completely dissolved. Taste for salt and pepper and add if needed.

Remove skewers from broiler, place each on individual plate and pour some of anchovy sauce over each serving. Garnish with parsley sprig.

4 servings. Each serving:

640 calories; 1,216 mg sodium; 139 mg cholesterol; 48 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

BUTTER RICE BALLS (Arancine con Burro)

Everybody seems to have a version of this recipe, whether they call them arancine (from the Italian for orange, which they resemble) or suppli al telefono (from the way the cheese strings like telephone lines when pulled apart). This version is my favorite. It comes from Clifford Wright's "Cucina Paradiso" (Simon & Schuster, 1992, $25).

Pinch saffron

Water

2 cups milk

2 cups Arborio rice

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, finely diced

1/3 cup small fresh or frozen peas

Bread crumbs

Olive oil

Dissolve saffron in 1 tablespoon tepid water. Let stand while cooking rice.

Bring milk and 2 cups water to boil in heavy pot with heavy lid. Stir in rice, 2 tablespoons butter and salt. Cover and reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes. Check rice and if soft but liquid is left, strain. If rice is still al dente, continue cooking until liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes, being careful that rice does not get too mushy. When rice is ready, gently stir in dissolved saffron and half of eggs until rice turns yellow. Spread rice on platter or marble surface and let cool completely.

Mix together remaining 6 tablespoons butter, pepper, mozzarella and uncooked peas.

To form rice balls, spread about 1/2 cup rice flat in palm of your hand, then cup your hand slightly, using thumb of other hand to make indentation. To keep rice from becoming sticky, have plate of cold water nearby to dip your hand into each time you form new rice ball. Place about 1 tablespoon cheese mixture into indentation and fold edges over. Cover with more rice and shape into large balls.

Pour remaining eggs into shallow bowl. Spread enough bread crumbs for coating on wax paper. Dip each ball into eggs, then roll in bread crumbs.

Deep-fry rice balls, 3 or 4 at a time, in enough olive oil to cover at 360 degrees until orange-brown, about 5 minutes. When all balls are fried, place in baking pan at bake at 450 degrees 10 minutes. Serve hot.

14 to 20 arancine. Each of 20 arancine:

184 calories; 300 mg sodium; 66 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

BROCCOLI AND MOZZARELLA PASTA SAUCE (Sugo di Broccoli e Mozzarella) (UNDER AN HOUR)

There is a luscious, clinging texture to this lovely green sauce--from "Marcella Cucina," by Marcella Hazan (HarperCollins, 1997, $35)--that works well with pasta. Note that the pasta and sauce are tossed together in the skillet, then the mozzarella is added so that as it melts, it completes the fusion of pasta and sauce.

1/2 pound broccoli

Salt

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 pound dried short pasta shapes, preferably rigatoni

1/4 pound fresh mozzarella, finely chopped

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-

Reggiano plus more to grate at table.

Detach florets and any small leaves from broccoli. Pare hard, dark green rind and any other tough, stringy parts from broccoli's main stems and from larger of floret stems. Cut thick, detached stems lengthwise in half. Wash stems under cold running water and florets in several changes of cold water.

Bring large pot of water to boil, add 2 tablespoons salt and thick main broccoli stems. Cook 5 minutes. Add florets. When water returns to boil, cook until thickest broccoli piece feels tender when tested with fork, about 5 more minutes. Drain. As soon as broccoli is cool enough to handle comfortably, chop fine.

Cook oil, butter and garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until garlic turns pale gold, 1 or 2 minutes. Add chopped broccoli and dash salt, turn 2 or 3 times to coat well, then remove from heat.

Cook pasta in large pot of salted boiling water to very firm al dente consistency, about 10 minutes. Drain, collecting in small bowl about 1/2 cup of cooking water.

Add drained pasta to pan containing broccoli. Place over high heat and turn over pasta and broccoli 3 or 4 times, then add chopped mozzarella, parsley, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan and 1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water. Briskly stir pasta until mozzarella has fused and water has been entirely absorbed or boiled away.

Transfer to warm bowl and serve at once with additional Parmesan to grate at table.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:

436 calories; 371 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 60 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 0.70 gram fiber.

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Sources

Polly-O fresh mozzarella is available at Bristol Farms stores in Southern California.

Sal Lioni's fresh mozzarella and the Italian buffalo mozzarella we tasted can be found at La Fromagerie, formerly known as the Beverly Hills Cheese Store.

Mozzarella Fresca is sold at Whole Foods Markets throughout Southern California.

Caseificio Gioia cheeses are available at Alessio Deli (203 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles), Monte Carlo Deli (3103 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank), San Carlo Deli (10178 Mason Ave., Chatsworth) and Italia Bakery & Deli (11134 Balboa Blvd., Granada Hills).

Italia Latticini is sold at Gelson's, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Westward Ho and Vicente Foods.

Italcheese's cow's milk mozzarella is available at most Ralphs, Gelson's, Vons, Bristol Farms, Sam's Markets, Price Club/Costcos and at Al Dente deli, 11092 Los Alamitos Ave., Los Alamitos. The buffalo milk mozzarella will be found at Bristol Farms stores shortly.

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Elusive Burrata

Like fresh mozzarella? You'll love burrata, a kissing cousin to mozzarella. Essentially, burrata is a thin layer of silky pasta filata--like mozzarella--wrapped around a loose mixture of mozzarella curds and rich cream. It's every bit as good as it sounds--Italian food expert Faith Willinger describes it as "halfway between cheese and sex." Burrata can be made by hand only, and we've been able to find just one company in Southern California that makes it, Caseificio Gioia. Check the Sources box, H6, for Caseificio Gioia's mozzarella and be sure to call first to see if burrata is available. Burrata only lasts a day--two at most.

*

Dalzell Viking plates arancine photo from Pottery Shack, Laguna Beach and Silver Skillet, Del Mar. "Cucina Fresca" bowl by Vietri in source box photo and pictured on cover from Ports O' Call, Pasadena; Pottery Shack, Laguna Beach and Malibu Colony, Malibu.

Glass platter from Bo Danica, La Jolla.

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