Claudio's in the Italian Market has long been one of my favorite destinations for pristinely fresh mozzarella made in-house. But lately, it's the drier scamorza, a pinch-necked wobbler also crafted by cheesemaker Claudio Auriemma, that has me obsessed. Scamorza is a close relative of mozzarella, a semisoft cheese typical of southern Italy that's made from the same cow's milk base — but whose curds are broken up more finely for a drier, lower-moisture cheese. It's also much firmer, and that knoblike handle on top is key. That's how it dangles from a rope for up to two weeks out of water in the walk-in fridge, a light aging process that allows it to develop an edible rind. Claudio's sells it plain but also with a tawny wisp of smoke that adds a layer of tangy sweetness I find impossible to resist as a mild yet flavorful snack simply cut into chunks. But scamorza is also a winner as an ingredient in cooked dishes.

With a lower moisture content than fresh mozz, it bakes perfectly over pizzas and sandwiches, and the smoked variety is also a subtle, earthy addition to pasta casseroles or Neapolitan-style eggplant Parmesan. Scamorza also crisps to a beautiful brown in a hot, dry cast-iron pan without melting all over the place, sort of like halloumi, and oozy wedges of it have anchored some of my favorite antipasti platters at Vetri. But Claudio's patriarch, Sal Auriemma, favors another more rustic technique I can't wait to try on the next available snow day: he strings one up over the fireplace or an open grill, cuts the end off the bottom, and then slices his scamorza onto a crusty slice of bread, one bubbly hot melty chunk at a time. "Grab a glass of red wine," he said, "and all's well with the world again."

– Craig LaBan

Scamorza, smoked or plain, $8.99 lb. (about $12 each) at Claudio's Specialty Foods, 924 S. Ninth St.  215-627-1873;