It came from the tiny Little Italy neighborhood in the Bronx, which is far superior to Mulberry Street's gaggle of hawkers and shamefaced tourists. My husband, Steve, and I would make the 20-minute drive there every month for olive oil, pasta, cured meats, and mozzarella. The store we always went to, Casa Della Mozzarella on East 187th Street, is essentially a long, packed hallway, and at the back men stand over vats of water, stirring and ladling balls of cheese. The choices are large or larger, salted or unsalted. I tried unsalted once, thinking vague thoughts about purity and simplicity, before remembering that if anything improves pure and simple foods, it's salt. No one bothered to tell us to eat the cheese immediately, or not to refrigerate it, both of which we learned through trial and error. At the height of my devotion I would save that store for last and dash back to the car, cradling my cheese like an infant.
I soon realized that there is a ruthlessness to fresh mozzarella, much as there is with tomatoes: The best of science and ingenuity cannot fake that optimal moment when the food is at its peak. From the second mozzarella is formed, it is never again as good as it was the moment before. It's not that mozzarella gets bad after a few hours in the fridge, but it becomes...less. The delicacy of the flavors begins to blend into an overall mildness, the texture firms, and the cheese ceases to release those silky ivory droplets that give the impression of a food so dense with glory it cannot help sharing a little. I'm pretty sure this is not hyperbole. The stress I felt just trying to orchestrate my cheese-eating makes me glad I never tried to be an EMT.
The day I learned how much timing matters to a mozzarella, Steve and I had purchased our cheese and then hurtled back up the Bronx River Parkway. Still wearing our coats and surrounded by unpacked grocery bags, we each tore off a velvety shred. The cheese glowed on the cutting board, demurely shedding whey.
At the first taste, we both said, "Oh my God" and locked eyes. The cheese was barely springy but yielding, with a gentle, fresh, milky tanginess. Silently, dazedly, we nibbled another piece. It was difficult to believe that something so pillowy in texture, so graciously light, was in fact a dense concentration of butterfat. When I turned away for a split second, Steve lost all reason and took a bite straight from the cheese, as if it were an apple.