Is there any more simple dish than a Caprese salad? Surely it’s just about putting together some mozzarella, tomato and basil leaves, no?
“Simplicity”, warns Gennaro Russo, chef of Le Sirenuse’s La Sponda restaurant, “can be the most difficult thing in the world to get right”. Russo points to another supposedly ‘simple’ dish, spaghetti al pomodoro. “Classics like that, with few ingredients, are the real tests of a great chef”, he says. “You can’t hide behind elaborate sauces or complicated preparations”.
Supposedly born on the island of Capri some time after the Second World War, the Caprese flaunts the colours of the Italian flag, red, white and green, but it’s far from being a novelty item. The mild lactic embrace of the mozzarella, the acidic, fruity tang of the tomato and the musky sapidity of the basil leaves complement each other perfectly. True Caprese connoisseurs make sure to spear some of each with every mouthful.
It can be served in a ring of alternating tomato and mozzarella slices interleaved with basil leaves, or – Russo’s preferred method – as a bed of tomato slices topped with mozzarella balls (commonly called bocconcini, or, if a little larger, ovoline – little eggs). Whichever approach you adopt, the chef advises that “the secret of a great Caprese salad is great ingredients”.
The mozzarella should be genuine buffalo mozzarella – difficult, but not impossible, to source outside of Italy. The tomatoes should be Sorrento or similar, big beefy ripe tomatoes without too tough a skin. And the basil should ideally be the small, fragrant Genoese variety – which also comes in a purple variant.
to serve four
800g (28oz) Mozzarella di bufala – if you use bocconcini, you’ll need five per person
8 medium to large Sorrento tomatoes
A generous bunch of basil with at least 80 separate leaves
The best extra-virgin olive oil you can find
Slice the tomatoes in rounds from base to stalk, discarding any hard central portions. Arrange on a plate, place a pyramid of five mozzzarella bocconcini on top, and garnish with sprigs of basil. Finally, sprinkle with salt and drizzle generously with olive oil.
Simplicity – and perfection – on a plate.
Photos © Roberto Salomone