The Cheese of Nuance

Fresh mozzarella has the reputation of being the milquetoast of cheese: bland as beige. But a recent blind tasting of 10 fresh mozzarella cheeses revealed a startling variety of flavors and textures.

In general, the cheeses divided along rough lines. Some tasted more of sweet milk, others of yogurt. Some cheeses were firm, almost rubbery, while others were more delicate and cake-like.

The unanimous favorite was from Sal Lioni of Brooklyn, sold at The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills ($10.99 per pound). It had the best of everything: a delicate, flowery cream flavor and a fine cake-like texture.

The two last places were also unanimous: Polly-O ($7.99 per pound) and Trader Joe's store brand ($2.39 per 1/2-pound package). There was nothing awful about either, but both were bland and watery in flavor. Polly-O was unpleasantly soft while Trader Joe's was too firm.

Among the others, results were mixed. Caseificio Gioia's mozzarella ($5.95 to $7.50 per pound) had a smooth, cake-like texture with a pleasant touch of yogurt flavor but was also noticeably saltier than the others. Italia Latticini's cheese ($3.99 per 1/2-pound package) had a more fibrous texture and a bland, sweet milk flavor.

The two cow's milk mozzarella cheeses from Italcheese ($3.99 per 1/2-pound package) were made two weeks apart and tasted very different. (See "The Dating Game.")

A cheese from Mozzarella Fresca in Benicia, Calif., ($3.99 per 1/2-pound package) had a sweet, uncomplicated fresh milk flavor and was a little more fibrous than most.

The two buffalo mozzarellas--one from Italy ($7.99 per 1/2-pound package), the other Italcheese's--turned out to be very yogurt-like with a very definite rich, animal-like flavor that took some tasters by surprise. It's a taste that will take a little getting used to for some.

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