Years ago, after a delayed flight and horrendous taxi ride from the airport, Vincenzo made me mozzarella in carrozza. It wasn’t the first time he’d made mozzarella sandwiches (dipped in flour and egg and then fried), but it was certainly the most memorable, because it was almost midnight and the only thing I’d eaten since lunchtime was half a Toblerone. Taking the first bite was like walking into a room filled with old friends – eggy bread, fried bread, cheese on toast, Breville toasted sandwiches – and, at the same time, quite unlike anything I had eaten before. It was also the most delicious thing I had ever eaten (again, I was starving, so unfair advantage), and entertaining: the string of cheese stretching between my mouth and the bread triangle, like an extendable dog lead, then sticking to my chin.
Carrozza is the carriage, so the name means “mozzarella in a carriage”. It is a dish that originated in mozzarella-making regions – what is now Campania and southern Lazio – although it is now diffused. Like resourceful home cooking everywhere, there are as many ways to make mozzarella in carrozza as there are cooks, with strong feelings usefully stemming from the fact that people feel extremely attached to what they grew up with, and the psychological reassurance of it tasting a certain way. I have a Neapolitan teacher called Daniela Del Balzo to whom mozzarella in carrozza is intensely emotional; a thread with her childhood that represents the bounty of home, so tradition, comfort and love. For her, to seal each triangle with flour and water paste, triple dip and deep-fry for her kids and grandkids is a way to pass on this bounty, and to maintain the thread. Vincenzo has his own way of making them, too, which is probably just as loaded with stuff, although he laughs off my attempts to make him voice them. But then, he looks so like his mother when he stands with a spatula.
Traditionally, mozzarella meant mozzarella di bufala, those pearly-white globes with a milky, mossy taste and once a cheap, everyday food – so much so that it could be treated with ease and dried out for a day or two before using for cooking. Something that seems extravagant nowadays when true mozzarella di bufala campagna DOP is rare and expensive and best eaten just as it comes. For this dish, use mozzarella traditionale, or cow’s milk fior di latte – whatever you think best.
If you have time, drain a 250g ball of mozzarella or fior di latte either by sitting it in a sieve for a few hours, so the excess milk seeps away and it dries out a little, or, if you don’t have much time, just squeezing it gently. Cut the ball into eight thin slices (don’t worry if they are scraggy). Cut the crusts from eight slices of bread, lay out four of them like playing cards and top each with two slices of the mozzarella and, if you wish, an anchovy fillet, leaving a 1mm border all around the edge. Top with the remaining slices of bread, press and cut each sandwich in half diagonally.
Now you have choices. You can simply dip the triangles in seasoned flour, then beaten egg and fry in butter or olive oil (or both) until golden brown. Or you can dip in flour, beaten egg and then fine breadcrumbs, and fry in butter, olive oil or both, until golden brown. The third option is to deep-fry, in which case it’s worth making a thick paste of flour and water to seal the edges before dipping the triangles in flour, beaten egg and fine breadcrumbs. In a small, deep frying pan, heat a couple of inches of oil suitable for frying, then, once hot (to test, a cube of bread should fry in a lively way), add a few triangles at a time and fry, turning, until deep golden brown. Lift out, blot on kitchen paper and serve immediately.
There are no late-night returns, and thankfully no traumatic taxi rides at the moment. I seem, though, to have developed my own psychological need for mozzarella sandwiches dipped first in flour, then egg, fried and handed to me by Vincenzo, late(ish) at night.