Retired in Rome Journal: Dinner on a piazza went from a no-no to a yes-yes thanks to Obika’ and its smoked bufala mozzarella

Twenty-year-aged Parma ham and smoked bufala mozzarella at Obika', in the heart of pulsating Campo dei Fiori.
Twenty-year-aged Parma ham and smoked bufala mozzarella at Obika’, in the heart of Rome’s pulsating Campo dei Fiori.

Some things you never do in Rome when you’re a local: Don’t fish in the Tiber. Don’t talk about a Sicilian’s mother. And never, ever, not even under threat of a high-powered rifle, eat on a piazza. All those sexy restaurants packed with tourists in sunglasses ringing Piazza Navona and the Pantheon? The food is SCHIFO! (DISGUSTING!). It’s mass produced, not hand-crafted like in the little trattorias you’ll find just around the corner in narrow alleys. They can’t help it. The volume of customers doesn’t allow the cooks to put in any time. You think these places make all their pasta by hand every morning? It comes in a box. And it tastes like it.

Last night, I did the unthinkable. Nope, I only fish for piranha. And I was in Sicily two weeks ago. I escaped unscathed. But on a cold, rainy Friday night in Rome, I walked the 100 meters from my apartment and ate on Campo dei Fiori. The Campo is legendary for its raucous nightlife and daily public market. It is not noted for its cuisine. Campo dei Fiori is barely Italian. The Drunken Ship tavern on the corner nearest my flat has hosted more drunken coeds than all the Theta Chi chapters combined. One of the Campo restaurants is called Sloppy Sam’s. My good buddy, Robin, is a barker outside trying to lure in customers.

He’s Cuban.

However, two motivations drove me to take a seat behind plastic to protect us from the wind and rain: One, I couldn’t live near the Campo for two months and not give it a chance; two, the restaurant I chose was Obika’, home of the best bufala mozzarella in the city.

I know Obika’. In 2006 I wrote about it in A Moveable Feast, the traveling food column I wrote for The Denver Post for eight years. Obika’ comes from the Neapolitan word “obica,” meaning, “We are here.” However, the Neapolitan alphabet has no “k.” The Neapolitan owner, Silvio Ursini, is a Bvlgari jewelry exec who started Obika’ in 2004 due to two obsessions: mozzarella and Japanese culture. He switched the “c” to a “k” to give it a Japanese bent and an accent on the end just to be hip.

Ever tried bufala mozzarella in the States? It’s that white ball in the milky substance and looks like some science student’s lab experiment that got a C-minus. It has all the flavor of raw lard. Nothing in American cuisine inspires a more resounding “BLAH!” than bufala mozzarella.

At Obika’ it is heaven. Obika’ gets his mozzarella from the water buffaloes owned by dairy farmers in the Piana del Volturno and Paestum regions surrounding Naples. How fresh is it? It’s hand pressed every morning and in Obika’ restaurants in Rome, Milan and London by 10 a.m. The next day, they throw out whatever’s not eaten. It’s no longer up to Obika’ standards.

When I wrote the column back in 2006, I went to the original restaurant near Piazza Navona. I asked the manager, a Roman named Ricardo Giouliani, why bufala outside Italy tastes like the culinary equivalent of a zip code directory.

“Because most of the time there are special products to keep mozzarella fresh,” he said. “They keep it in water to keep it from drying up. But this mozzarella is no good the next day. Other mozzarella tastes like plastic.”

So I didn’t feel sheepish when I peeled off my black leather jacket, black beret and gray scarf and sat down next to one of those eight-foot-high heaters that blaze away on every Roman piazza in the winter. Some resident in the second-floor apartments that ring the Campo must’ve botched her risotto as the quiet night was punctured by a searing sing-song Italian fire alarm.

I shouted my order to the waiter, wary of how much food I’d get for 14 euros (nearly $19). It is essentially an appetizer. I ordered smoked bufala mozzarella and 20-year-aged Parma ham. Out came seven long strips of ham so absent of stringy white fat they could pass for filets. On a small bed of lettuce was a big grayish-yellow ball. I cut into the ball of smoked mozzarella and swooned so loud the couple next to me stopped kissing to stare at me.

Imagine the best smoked cheese flavor of your life, whether it’s Wisconsin or Oregon or wherever, and inject it inside the soft, tender substance of bufala mozzarella. It was so good I ate it in small bites. The basket of bread went untouched. Defiling this cheese with any other food would be like putting sand in your souffle.

The Parma ham nearly melted in my mouth, inspiring great memories of one trip to Parma so yummy it remains my favorite Italian food city. This food in Rome isn’t just good. It’s sexual. It’s sensual. It would make a romantic meal with your mother-in-law.

By the time I finished, I didn’t know if I was more hungry or just flat out turned on. Inspired, I ordered a pizza with bufala mozzarella and smoked speck, a famous cured meat from Alto Adige, the Italian region on the Austrian border. With a couple glasses of Vermentino, a crisp white wine made from the grapes of Sardinia, dinner on a piazza was no longer anything to fear.

And the fire alarm stopped. Campo dei Fiori was quiet. All you could hear was soft Italian music drifting into the rain — and my moaning.