The Perfect Insalata Caprese


H
aving lived in Italy and spent part of every year there, I am wary of what usually passes for Italian cooking in this country. In spite of the "upgrading" of Italian restaurants in the past decade or so it is clear that genuine Italian dishes are produced in few, if any, of even our most highly touted Italian restaurants. The problem seems to be two-fold: first, professional chefs are reluctant to leave an authentic traditional dish alone, even though the finest Italian cooking is either home or country cooking. Second, most Americans are rarely prepared to accept the dishes in their original form; they seem to demand some kind of special elaboration to justify eating out, and restaurateurs are happy to oblige them in order to validate the frequently high prices required for these elaborations.


L
et me illustrate with a traditional genuine Neapolitan dish (from the island of Capri): Insalata Caprese. This is an essentially simple but incredibly delicious dish when made properly. But, oh, the versions I have seen here! Tiny rubbery pellets of soggy so-called mozzarella soak for long periods in a chopped "basil-champagne vinaigrette," resulting in a greenish mess that resembles the unmentionable. Or versions with rubbery, yellow supermarket mozzarella, pink, wooly tomatoes, and nameless oil. Or topped with the currently trendy Balsamic vinegar, not to mention the equally trendy sun-dried tomatoes, neither of which is used in Italy as promiscuously as here.

Properly made Insalata Caprese is one of the simplest and most delicious of dishes. It requires only the right ingredients and the right season. The season first. This is basically a summer dish from which follow the ingredients: it should be made only with local vine-ripened tomatoes that are red, juicy and flavorful but not overly soft, and preferably unrefrigerated or only minimally so.

The next ingredient should be truly fragrant, flavorful young basil: green basil grown in the earth and sun, not the hydroponically grown giant leaf variety which has little flavor. The next essential ingredient is good quality fresh, moist mozzarella. Ideally, this would be the true mozzarella di bufala, a specialty of the Naples region, but this is rather expensive even in Italy and available here, via air, only in specialty urban markets. Good fresh cow's milk mozzarella (called Fior di latte) does just as well. Never use the yellow plastic-sheathed supermarket variety! Finally, you need genuine extra-virgin olive oil and only olive oil, the best you can afford.

Slice the fresh mozzarella into discs of moderate thickness and alternate them on a platter (or on individual plates if you are doing individual portions) with sliced discs of the ripe tomatoes, overlapping for effect. Tear a good bunch of fresh, fragrant basil leaves and sprinkle liberally over the slices. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Then, just before serving, drizzle on some excellent extra-virgin olive oil. Insalata Caprese should never be allowed to sit in oil for any length of time and become soggy. And no vinegar of any kind goes on Insalata Caprese!

On Capri itself I have enjoyed the following variations: a good quantity of fresh young arugula (rughetta or rucola, as it is called in the area, where the variety is closer to what we call wild arugula) instead of basil; a combination of fresh basil and fresh (not dried) oregano. With good quality fresh bread and a glass of crisp, cool or slightly chilled white wine - such as Lacryma Christi Bianco or, if you can find it, the latest vintage of Capri Bianco - this makes an excellent summer lunch or, in a small portion, an ideal first course for a summer meal.

by Al Cirillo


I have been studying Italian for a year now, and visited France and the Riverra di Fiori region, specifically San Remo. Anyway, I was reading the page titled The Perfect Insalata Caprese. The one described sounds good, but the one I love may be a good suggestion to add to your website. The basic plate is some tomatoes (pomodori) cut in large slices and lay across the diameter of the plate. Then, you cut some smaller sized slices of buffalo mozzarella and lay them across the tomatoes. Then, drizzle some pesto across the layered tomatoes and mozzarella. Then, sprinkle some pine nuts on the top as well. Drizzle some olive oil all over the actual food and a little on the sides of the plate. Maybe some basil on top too. Serve with some S. Pellegrino (Italian sparkling water) and some bagette w/ or w/o pesto, baked in an oven till crispy, yet soft, or any good, warm, fresh bread for that matter. This is the most wonderful Italian dish. I love it!!! Well, just thought you might want some suggestions.

Sincerely,
Evan G.


I lived in Gaeta twenty years ago and Insalata Caprese was one of my favorite dishes. A small pizza place, Amelio's served it by placing a whole ball in the middle of a large plate surrounded by thick slices of the most wonderful fresh tomatoes. A bit of Basil was shredded over the tomatoes and a bit of salt and pepper added before drizzling the entire plate with Olive Oil... We enjoyed the fun of slicing your own chunk of mozzarella with a fork and swabbing it and a tomato slice through the oil... And we always finished it just as the pizzas were brought to the table...

I can get decent Mozzarella de bufala here, though it's not as fresh... the real problem is finding a great tomato.

Jim B.


Hello,

I was reading your page regarding The Perfect Insalata Caprese.  I had never heard of it before.  I was in a Whole Foods store this past July with a friend and she order this salad from the deli.  It was called "Caprese Salad".  I tried a small bite and it was delicious.  I liked it so much that I asked her for the label on the tub since the ingredients were listed.  It seemed so simple that I figured I'd make it myself one day.  The ingredients that Whole Foods have listed are: Fresh Mozzarella (in ball shapes the size of the tomatoes), Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, Lemon Juice, Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Salt and Pepper.

Now it's November and I pulled the ingredients off my refrigerator to look at it again.  I was curious what Caprese meant and found your page and several others.  All of them seem to be about the same, especially about not adding any other oil and not letting it sit in oil.  I'm guessing Whole Foods added the lemon juice and canola oil for a preservative.  Anyways, I was reading the first comment left by Evan G. and I found it funny that he does exactly what you say most Americans do:   most Americans are rarely prepared to accept the dishes in their original form; they seem to demand some kind of special elaboration to justify eating out, and restaurateurs are happy to oblige them in order to validate the frequently high prices required for these elaborations.  I found that pretty funny.  I know you say this is a summer dish; however, it is really calling me!  My apologies to the Italians and hopefully I will do it some justice.  Thanks for the history lesson and for the recipe.

Sincerely,
Carmel P.


I took Insalata Caprese to a potluck dinner on Sunday, to serve with the host's Spaghetti Carbonara.  It has been awhile since I made this and wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything.  I enjoyed finding your site!  And I have a confession, which I hope won't offend the Insalata Caprese traditionalists too much.  I had some lovely fresh zucchini in the 'frig so I sliced them thinly, and slightly on the diagonal, and layered them with the mozzarella and tomatoes.  Then proceeded as usual - fresh basil, salt and freshly ground pepper, and a light drizzle of very good olive oil.  It was a hit!

Ciao - JoAnne C.