Tucked away in an old photo album somewhere is a picture of a seven or eight year-old me in long, wind-whipped pig tails and sunglasses pointing to something in the distance, a mouthed exclamation caught midway. The photo was most likely taken by my dad, who was quite the shutterbug when I was a kid. We were traveling aboard a speedboat around the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri. It’s all I remember about this photo; I have no recall of anything else–how we got there, why we went, where we stayed, or what we ate. The thought of this photo is never far from my mind when I make Caprese salad. All of a sudden, I’m back on that speedboat, surrounded by the impossibly blue water of the Gulf of Naples, my pigtails blowing in the wind, on the way to the Grotta Azzurra.
Insalata caprese (literally “the salad from Capri”) was created during the 1950’s at Trattoria da Vincenzo for regulars who wanted a light lunch. The salad is characteristic of the lighter fare enjoyed on the island during the summer months when tomatoes are abundant and at their most flavorful. Like the bell peppers used to make this salad, tomatoes were an import from the New World in the sixteenth century, but they didn’t gain popularity in Italian cooking until the late seventeenth century. Tomatoes are now the most widely consumed produce in Italy and are eaten during the summer when they are in season and are at their most flavorful. Tomatoes thrive in most of the regions of Italy. I remember my paternal nonna Ada’s prolific tomato plants that grew in her garden up north in the Veneto region. They are also cultivated in Emilia-Romagna, Sicilia, Calabria, Sardegna, Puglia, and Campania (the region where Capri is located).
Because of its simplicity, a proper Caprese salad must be made with best-quality ingredients, and following a few guidelines will give you a successful result every time: the tomatoes should always be in-season and at room temperature (they should never be refrigerated); the mozzarella should be the freshest you can find–a cow’s milk fior di latte or mozzarella di bufala, and the basil leaves should be a vibrant green and fragrant. The dressing for Caprese salad is simply a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (preferably unfiltered if you can find it), and only extra-virgin olive oil. Balsamic vinegar (or vinegar of any kind) does not belong on Caprese salad, despite its ubiquitous use. The flavor of the vinegar is too overpowering for the delicate mozzarella and the acidity breaks down the cheese and ruins its delicate texture. Lastly, some fine sea salt will lightly season the salad and cause the tomatoes to release their natural juices, which will mingle delightfully with the olive oil and create a puddle of dressing at the bottom of the platter, perfect for mopping up with a piece of rustic bread. With every bite, it’s easy to understand why Caprese salad is a staple recipe in the Italian summer kitchen. The next best thing is eating it in Capri after a speedboat ride to the Blue Grotto.
There are no quantities necessary to make Caprese salad–it all depends on how many people you are feeding. As a rule, I aim for one slice/piece of mozzarella for every slice/wedge of tomato. Drizzle the olive oil lightly over the salad and add more if necessary–it should lightly coat the ingredients and create a small puddle of dressing at the bottom of the platter which is delicious to mop up with good-quality rustic bread.
Ripe, flavorful tomatoes, washed and patted dry
Fresh mozzarella (such as fior di latte or mozzarella di bufala)
Fresh basil, washed and patted dry
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Cut the tomatoes into slices or wedges and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt to allow the tomatoes to begin releasing their juices. Slice the mozzarella (or tear it into bite-size pieces) and arrange between the tomatoes. Hand-tear the basil into small pieces and sprinkle over the tomatoes and mozzarella. Drizzle the olive oil over the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil and let the salad sit for 5-10 minutes to allow the oil to mix with the juices from the tomatoes. Serve at room temperature with good-quality, rustic bread.