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Where the mozzarella roams

The Italian buffalo is a massive beast with eyes that glow red and a bony rump. Resistant to any change in routine, it is happiest wallowing in mud, lying in the pasture like a pile of old leather shoes and poking its wet nose into a mound of feed.

It has nothing in common with Botticelli"s “Primavera” or Donatello’s “David.” But since the 12th century at least, the brutes have given the world something arguably as good: fresh, pillow-soft, white mozzarella cheese.

Mozzarella comes chiefly from Italy’s Campania region around Naples. Although theories abound, no one knows for sure when or how the buffalo first got here from Africa and Asia. Frankly, I don’t care as long as my diet regularly includes fresh mozzarella.

My passion for the cheese recently led me on a driving tour to the traditional land of mozzarella. About an hour south of Rome, I turned off the E45 Autostrada at the Caianello exit, got on a country road that seemed headed toward the mountains and eventually found La Fenice, a mozzarella dairy, or caseificio, outside the hamlet of Presenzano.

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At the airplane-hangar-like building on a rise in the middle of farm fields, I got my first whiff of buffalo, so rank it could make a shovel stand up on its own. But the little shop in front was ruthlessly clean, its display case heaped with dairy products such as buffalo milk pudding and ricotta.

Then I spied the vat where fresh mozzarella balls bobbed, unrefrigerated, in a sea of viscous liquid.

Mozzarella fact No. 1: Fresh mozzarella made from unpasteurized buffalo milk does not belong in the refrigerator. It is best kept at room temperature and optimally should be eaten within two days of production.

While I stood there, lone men in city-slicker suits, looking almost guilty, arrived, one after another, for their fixes. I watched the hair-netted clerk scoop cheese baseballs into plastic bags filled with “keeping water,” packaged the way pet stores sell goldfish.

I asked for two medium-size mozzarellas, then drove down the road, parked by a pink cherry orchard, leaned out the window and punctured the bag, spurting liquid onto the side of the car. With the cheese slithering in my hands, I took a bite, breaking through the thin, shiny rind into dissolving layers of musky-tasting paradise, juice streaming down my chin. It was not a pretty sight but exactly the way fresh mozzarella should be eaten, with nothing else but the Italian spring.

Mozzarella fact No. 2: Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) is delicious, and leftover cheese is fine for cooking. But when purists get their hands on a lump of real, fresh buffalo milk mozzarella, any accompaniment is superfluous.

After that, I drove on to the town of Caserta with its 1,200-room palace built about 1750 by Charles VII of Bourbon, then ruler of the Kingdom of Naples. He was succeeded by his son Ferdinand IV, a monarch who had the soul of a peasant, ate macaroni with his fingers and started a buffalo-breeding farm outside Caserta.

The town is now part of the unbroken urban sprawl that coats the coastal plain north of Mt. Vesuvius, virtually a suburb of Naples, known for crime, litter, poverty, corruption and occasional earthquakes. On the upside, the greater Neapolitan area has Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Bay of Naples and mozzarella-topped pizza Margherita, invented by a local pizza chef for the 1889 visit of Italian Queen Margherita.

Most tourists shoot south as fast as they can from the Naples airport to the Amalfi Coast. But I love the disorderly, densely packed Neapolitan area, where every graffiti-covered factory seems to have a statue of Jesus, large brassieres dry on high-rise apartment balconies and shady-looking men leave their big, black SUVs in no-parking zones. Unlike picture-perfect Tuscany, it’s a slice of real life.

I had to stop in Caserta because, together with Salerno about 50 miles south, it is a mozzarella production center, home of a consortium founded in 1981 to protect and promote bona fide, officially regulated mozzarella di bufala Campania.

Mozzarella fact No. 3: Signs for dairy outlets along the highways in the Naples area are as common as casino marquees on the Vegas Strip. Some sell excellent mozzarella. If you always want to be sure of getting the real thing, look for caseificios bearing the Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or DOP seal, a European Union certification that guarantees top-quality Campania mozzarella.

The mozzarella consortium has its headquarters above a car dealership several long blocks south of Charles’ palace. That’s where I met president Luigi Chianese, vice president Domenico Raimondo and agronomist Gennaro Testa, who described some of the challenges faced by the 130-member organization, including the need to distinguish generic supermarket mozzarella, often made with pasteurized cow’s milk, from true mozzarella di bufala Campania.

The first important step in that direction came in 1996, when the European Union granted buffalo milk mozzarella from Campania DOP status, distinguishing it from imitations made elsewhere, similar to the way that Champagne from the Champagne region of French is differentiated from other bubbly.

Mozzarella fact No. 4: Last year 32,000 tons of DOP mozzarella were produced in Campania, but just 16% of it was exported to France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. and other foreign countries. The very finest DOP cheese never leaves the region because it is made from unpasteurized milk and has a shelf life of only a few days.

So where does the mozzarella found in the U.S. come from?

At Osteria Mozza, an L.A. restaurant with a mozzarella bar opened by chef Nancy Silverton (and company) in 2007, locally produced cow’s milk mozzarella is served, along with burrata (a kind of mozzarella) flown in every Thursday from the Basilicata region of Italy.

The consortium helps monitor cheese production in order to meet DOP standards. But last year health officials found elevated levels of dioxin in several samples of mozzarella.

Chianese told me that when EU monitors arrived to run tests, they discovered low levels of contamination in milk from about 20 of the 2,000-odd buffalo dairies in Campania. “Not one bocconcino [a miniature mozzarella ball] of DOP cheese was found to have dioxin,” he said.

But the problem was exacerbated when a trash collection crisis erupted in Naples at about the same time, and a reported 100,000 tons of garbage rotted on city streets until the federal government stepped in to clean it up.

Of course, buffaloes do not graze on Naples sidewalks. Nevertheless, the stain spread to mozzarella, because the crisis underscored illegal toxic waste dumping in Campania by the Camorra, a powerful Naples crime syndicate that was the subject of the 2008 film “Gomorra,” based on a bestselling book by journalist Roberto Saviano. The movie exposed Camorra infiltration of almost every aspect of Neapolitan life, including waste management.

Later, Testa took me to Caseificio Farina in suburban Caserta. There we split a ball of mozzarella while he explained the subtle difference between slightly salty, densely textured Caserta-style cheese and the softer, runnier, almost sweet-tasting Salerno product.

I spent the next three days running my own taste tests south of Salerno where a long scallop of pine-edged beach lines the Tyrrhenian Sea, with a crescent of rugged peaks on the eastern horizon. Coast and mountains are separated by the wide, flat Sele River plain, which was a malaria-breeding marsh until Benito Mussolini launched a project to drain the wetland, yielding fertile farm fields known for artichokes and -- some claim -- the world’s best handmade, artisanal mozzarella.

Mozzarella fact No. 5: It’s easy to spot the difference between handmade mozzarella and machine-produced cheese. Each artisanal ball has a Y-shaped flap marking the place where it was seamed by the cheese maker, or casaro.

You can’t go 100 yards along busy Highway 18, which cuts across the Sele plain, without passing a mozzarella outlet or a slow three-wheeled truck with mama and papa in the front seat and a pile of artichokes in back.

Together with fresh seafood -- think scampi and calamari -- mozzarella and artichokes are featured on menus in local restaurants where the cuisine of Campania is about as good as it gets. And if you can’t find a life-transforming pizza Margherita in the area, you probably ought to give up eating.

In the summer, Italian sun-lovers flock to hotels and condominiums around the beach where the Allies landed in 1943 to liberate fascist Italy. Since the late 18th and 19th century heyday of the European Grand Tour, sightseers have visited the nearby ruins of Paestum, a Greek colony founded around 600 BC with three majestic Doric-columned temples.

But my main objective was 500-acre Tenuta Vannulo near the town of Capaccio Scalo. That’s where dapper Antonio Palmieri produces perhaps the purest organic mozzarella and ricotta in Campania.

Mozzarella fact No. 6: Ricotta cheese is made from a milky mozzarella byproduct. Americans use it chiefly for lasagna, but in Italy ricotta is often served for dessert in the middle of a Lazy Susan surrounded by honey, orange peel, cinnamon and other condiments.

Tenuta Vannulo has 500 buffaloes that feed on pesticide-free grass and grain produced at the farm. Mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt and ice cream are made daily in relatively small measure and are sold only on the premises because Palmieri thinks interventions such as pasteurization adversely affect the quality.

So you have to go to the farm to taste the cheese. But that’s no hardship because Tenuta Vannulo is a beautiful estate, established in 1907 by Palmieri’s grandfather.

It’s centered on the family’s Pompeii-red villa, and its cafe serves criminally rich buffalo milk gelato on brioche pastry with a dollop of whipped cream.

Mozzarella fact No. 7: A one-cup serving of the cheese is loaded with protein and has virtually no carbohydrates. Of course, it also has 336 calories, 220 of them from fat.

At the picture window-lined dairy, visitors can watch workers add scalding-hot water to honeycombed wedges of fermented buffalo milk and stir with a wooden stick until the goo turns into a shiny mass the color of celebrities’ teeth. Then warm globules of it are kneaded by two workers while another one pulls off smaller lumps, shapes them into balls and tosses them into a vat.

Mozzarella fact No. 8: The name of the cheese comes from the Italian verb mozzare, which means to lop or cut.

Vannulo buffalo -- the stars of the show -- live in a large, open-air stable behind the cafe and shop. It’s everything the artisanal dairy is not, with a high-tech buffalo-milking system that recognizes computer chips embedded in the animals’ collars for collecting health and production data.

Mozzarella fact No. 9: In the old days, milkers tied the animals’ hind legs so they couldn’t wander and convinced them to give milk by keeping newborns close at hand. Female buffaloes generally calve once a year.

In the Vannulo stable, I watched buffaloes amble into the milking chambers where they were hooked up to fully automated milking hoses. The creatures don’t seem to mind and never find out that their milk ultimately becomes the manna from heaven that is mozzarella cheese.

Mozzarella fact No. 10: Eating the cheese promotes intelligence and good looks.

OK, that hasn’t been proved. But it makes people happy.

I know that for a fact.

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susan.spano@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Follow the buffalo tracks

THE BEST WAY

From LAX, Continental, Lufthansa, American, Air France, British, US Airways, United, Delta and KLM offer connecting service (change of planes) to Rome. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $724. To Naples, Lufthansa and British Air offer connecting flights (change of planes) out of LAX. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $794. The excellent A1 Autostrada (a toll superhighway) links Rome to the mozzarella-producing regions of Campania.

Caserta is about 130 miles southeast of Rome and 15 miles from Naples; Paestum-Capaccio is about 190 miles southeast of Rome and 65 miles southeast of Naples.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers listed below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (the country code for Italy) and the number.

WHERE TO STAY

Caserta is a big town with a Crowne Plaza, www.crowne plaza-caserta.com, and a Novotel, www.novotel.com.

Paestum-Capaccio, with its long beach and nearby mountains, is the more attractive place to stay.

Azienda Agrituristica Seliano, Tenuta Seliano, Paestum, 0828-724-544, www .agriturismoseliano.it, is a lovely old farm and villa near the beach and the Paestum archaeological site, especially welcoming to families. It has rooms decorated with antiques, a swimming pool, a big buffalo herd and a restaurant serving beautifully prepared local fare (by reservation); doubles begin at $100, including breakfast.

ll Granaio dei Casabella, 84 Via Tavernelle, 0828-721-014, www.ilgranaiodeicasabella .com, is a 14-room guest house in an attractively restored old-fashioned farmhouse within walking distance of the Paestum ruins; doubles begin at $135, including breakfast.

Mandetta, 2 Via di Mare, 0828-811-118, www.mandetta.it, is an endearing, family-run budget hotel on the beach with a fabulous restaurant; doubles start around $90, with breakfast.

Schuhmann Strand-Hotel, Via Marittima, 0828-851-151, www.hotelschuhmann.com, is a well-run, modern beach-front hotel with amenities like balconies and satellite television; doubles begin at $90, per person, half-board.

WHERE TO EAT

La Tavernelle, 14 Via Tavernelle, 0828-722-440, is a smart and friendly little wine bar that serves well-prepared local fare; two-course dinner about $40, not including wine.

Museo Bar-Gelateria, 913 Via Magna Graecia, 0828-811-078, is one of the nicest spots near the entrance to the Paestum ruins; light meals about $10.

Nettuno, Zona Archeologica, 0828-811-028, is a fine old Sele Valley institution, right in the middle of the Paestum ruins, with terrace and formal dining room seating; dinner $50 to $60.

TO LEARN MORE

Italian Government Tourist Board in Los Angeles, (310) 820-1898, www.italiantourism.com.


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