Insalata Caprese – deceptively simple

November 17, 2010 / Food & Wine
Naples, Campania
caprese1What’s so special about a simple salad of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil? Well, it does fly the Italian flag of red, white and green… and each ingredient has a story to tell.

Take basil: this pungent, sweet herb is revered throughout Europe and Asia. It is used to prepare holy water in eastern orthodox churches and was a passport to the afterlife for ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Hindus. The Greeks called it kingly – basilicon – and associated it with both mourning and hatred; the Romans confused the word with basilisk – a serpent or scorpion that killed with a single glance. By the middle ages people thought that bruised basil leaves could generate scorpions but also draw out their poison from a bite. Besides its culinary power we know its best use today is to keep mosquitoes away.

caprese2Real mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk in Lazio and Campania. Mozzare means to cut off; this is a soft cheese formed in large loops that are sliced away to form balls. The centre must be soft and smell of cool, fresh milk. Was it the Goths, the Normans or returning crusaders who introduced buffalo into Italy? Our thanks, whoever it was.

Finally the tomatoes. No-one who has tasted tomatoes raised on volcanic soil doubts that these are the most heavenly fruit on earth. Vesuvius devastates the landscape from time to time but she also imparts a mineral magic to anything grown around her. Whether you eat pomodori or pomodorini (the little ones) you are consuming history.

Put them together therefore with reverence, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then… eat with joy and gusto.


Penny Ewles-Bergeron

by Penny Ewles-Bergeron

Author, artist… celebrating the many good things in Naples.

25 Responses to “Insalata Caprese – deceptively simple”

  1. Two of my favorite meals come from Italy. Insalata Caprese, and Prosciutto con Melone. I could eat them every day.

    I didn’t know basil was good for mosquitos. How much do you have to eat to make a difference?

  2. Where does the name Caprese come from/ i can only think of Capri? Does anyone know?

  3. Absolutely delicious. Just got back from a trip to Italy, which included time in Sorrento and Capri. Enjoyed Insalata Caprese every day while there. It’s true, there is nothing that can compare with fresh bufala mozzarella and – those tomatoes! Those photos make me want more right now.

  4. Maria, according to wikipedia: “Insalata Caprese (salad in the style of Capri)…”
    This is a favorite in our house. I grow bunches of basil in my garden each summer, along with Roma and other tomatoes. Always a starter to our dinners. I add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Yum!

  5. joseph spano
    joseph spano

    This was one of the most informative notes, so many time we have enjoyed Caprese, in Maratea, Sorento, Naples each tasting just a bit differently. Certainly when we make our version of it at home, it too is a bit different. That is what is so enjoyable, so Italiani.
    Thank you

  6. This is the first – and last – dish I have each and every time I visit Italy. The best bufala yet was from a little shop outside Pompeii’s ruins, where the fellow reached into a large and cloudy glass jar, pulled out a white mass, tore off a hunk and wrapped it in waxed paper. It was gone by the time I was twenty steps away!

    There is nothing more quintessentially Italian than a plate of these three delectable foods. Penny – your brief note is most informative and ‘tasty’ – in words as simple – and elegant – as this time-honoured offering.

    Time for a plate; thank you!

  7. I am of Sicilian descent, and have never been to Italy….that is my dream some day.

    I serve this plate almost every chance I get, and everyone just loves it.

    I’m sure if you lived in Italy, it doesn’t compare. I try to use the best ingredeiants.

    Thank you,


  8. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    As you see from my photos, every caprese salad served is a little bit different but they are all beautiful in their way. When I make it I also add salt & fresh black pepper but the various recipes online (I checked) often include a pesto dressing. Living in Naples I have to be a purist on this point and just use olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Often the tomatoes used in restaurants here are the big green ones but I prefer the intense flavour of pomodorini. I do agree with your comments that it’s the quality of the ingredients that determines the experience, an essential part of summer in Italy.
    It’s interesting that the aroma of basil leaves, besides keeping away mosquitoes, is said in some parts of Italy to keep away goats… and Capri is the island of goats. Some odd connection there, no doubt!

  9. Phyllis Brewer Lechiara

    Thank you, Thank you for this wonderful article. We grow our tomatoes and basil and have Caprese salad often. A bite of heaven on earth.

  10. My Neopolitain grandparents called this herb “bas’ a’ nee-gaul” — I’m guessing adapted from the ‘basilicon’.

    And as kids we were told that it’s real name was ‘bas’a nee-gaul’ which translates from the Neopolitian to “Kiss Nicholas”.

    I’ve always thought that really was it’s name-Live and Learn.

  11. Beth-caprese and proscuitto con melone are my 2 favorite things also! Even though it is not the same, here in Seattle I grow my own tomatoes and basil and make mozzarella for my Caprese Salads-I am yet to find buffalo milk though!! I love Sorrento and will be back next fall-can’t wait for the Buffalo Mozzarella! Thanks for the great note!

  12. Gian Banchero

    A Greek friend once told me that at one time Greeks would put a pot of basil at open doorways in order to keep out mosquitoes… Where does the name caprese come from? I seem to remember having heard that the salad originated on the island of Capri, hence Caprese???? Also heard that the name Capri is from the word capra/capre meaning goat and goats. Basil was so sacred in my Sicilian grandmother’s house that if she’d drop some on the floor after picking it up she’d kiss it, this is what she’d also do with religious objects that had fallen… In the early 70s when I had my restaurant I’d sometimes serve a dollop of pasta col pesto with a meal, how many times I heard “Eww, yuck, green sauce.” Ha, how times have changed… To this day I do not use basil out of season no matter how good the imported (Mexico) or hot house product is, to me in-season early springtime basilico means the triumph over winter, rebirth, the proclaimer of all the good that is to come, to have pesto during winter means the universe is out of order. Thank you for the article Penny…

  13. Gian Banchero

    P.S. When I make insalata Caprese I never use vinegar, just pure green olive oil which accentuates all the flavors, anything else detracts, but this is just my preference. I know people who swear by adding something acidic. . One woman I know uses only garlic infused olive oil which if mild enough seems to produce a very pleasant dish, I have also made Caprese with either lemon or orange infused olive oils (home made, of course), nice, nice, nice… Gian B.

  14. Penny,
    I love this note!!! Insalata Caprese w/Buffalo Mozzarella from Sorento is simple Heaven on Earth. Grazie for this wonderful Note!!!!!!!!!

  15. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Roseann – fascinated by your Napoletano story. The more you say it, the more it becomes ‘basilicon’. But then Napoletano has Greek elements in it – we live in the oldest part of Naples, originally the Greek settlement. Nice to think anybody called Nicholas gets the benefit of this linguistic accident!
    Michael – caprese pizza is also delicious.
    Gian Banchero – the herb does appear to be sacred to numerous cultures, from Egyptian mummy windings to the tradition your grandmother was part of in treating it as sacred. In serving I have to go with the slight acidity myself. And yes, it’s very much identified with Capri.
    Everybody else – thanks for your positive reactions. I think we’re all agreed this is a great dish!

  16. Lonnie Troll

    I have been eating tomatoes and mozzarella cheese since I have been a little girl. My mother always made it with Olive oil and a dash of salt. I love it.

  17. Lonnie Troll

    The Nov. 18th 2010 reply addition: I forgot to memtion the small pieces of basil. My mother cane from Campobasso, Molise near The Isle of Capri.

  18. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thanks Carol, and everyone else for the enthusiastic comments. Good food is a very fine thing. P.S. I had insalata caprese for lunch…

  19. great read about Insalata Caprese, very informative, thank you. Totally agree on salt and black pepper possibly added to the three key ingredients. To be purist as you perfectly say, don’t you think that Balsamic vinegar has nothing to do with Neapolitan tradition, belonging to a region (Emilia) which is located 400 miles North of Campania enjoying continental weather opposite to the Mediterranean influence in the Naples Gulf? With my warmest regards. Roberto

  20. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Hi Roberto, it’s hard to know where to draw the geographical boundaries of what works together, in food as in marriages – my husband and I grew up about 3,500 apart! So with the insalata caprese which if you include the balsamic has the smallest element of ‘fusion’ cuisine, one region of Italy to another, which I think works well. However, you’ll see there are other fans of keeping it local to Napoli and eschewing the acidic ingredient. And I’ll concede that I should have been more attentive in my use of the word ‘purist’. (-:


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