Think fresh mozzarella and buffalo tomatoes are more likely to come to mind than water buffalos. But true mozzarella can only be made from the rich, fatty milk of the water buffalo. For years, chefs and gourmands in the United States would settle for nothing less than the smooth, white balls of mozzarella di bufala, airlifted from Italy.

Hanns Michael Heick is hoping to crack Italy's mozzarella monopoly in a quixotic quest to produce the finest mozzarella this side of Naples.

"There was a point in my life where I didn't even know water buffalo existed," said Heick, who was born in Vienna and spent much of his adult life as a wine exporter. "Now I'm an expert."

His water buffalo, about 200 head, roam a 50-acre spread in the remote foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada mountains.

Fresh mozzarella has become a $48 billion specialty food trend in the United States. Heick and his Italian-born wife, Grazia Perrella, whose family has produced mozzarella for three generations, operate the larger of two mozzarella-producing water buffalo dairies in the country.

The average American ate a record 10 pounds of mozzarella last year, twice the rate of a decade ago, according to data compiled by the University of Wisconsin. But nearly all of it was made from cow's milk and manufactured by a handful of large, industrial dairies.

For centuries, Italian cheese makers dominated the gourmet mozzarella market, due largely to the domestication of large herds of imported water buffalo during Da Vinci's lifetime. How and when the water buffalo — a common beast of burden that originated in Asia — got to Italy is a mystery.

Unlike other cheeses that improve with age, mozzarella is best served as soon as it is made. Airlifting fresh mozzarella from Italy is costly. The freight charges can exceed the cost of the cheese of itself, which fetches upward of $20 a pound.

Many argue it is worth the expense. Fresh buffalo mozzarella is silkier and tastier than the leathery, plastic-wrapped cow milk mozzarella lining grocery store shelves and grated onto millions of pizzas.

So far, Heick is managing to squeeze out $1 million in annual sales, an increase from the $350,000 the dairy took in four years ago.

"If we had more milk, we could sell much more cheese," said Heick, who plans to expand his water buffalo herd in the next few years.

Still, the dairy is a long way from profitability, held down by the expenses of an operation that is spread across California at three locations. The herd lives in Bangor. Buffalo ready for milking are shipped to San Bernadino and the cheese is made Gardenia.

By this time next year, Heick said the entire operation will be located at the Bangor site, which is now being outfitted with new refrigerators, pasteurizing machines and all the other equipment needed for a dairy. He'll then work to improve on the annual mozzarella output of 150,000 pounds a year, a pittance compared to the 2.14 billion pounds of various cheeses California churns out annually.

In the meantime, he is attracting a small but growing following at farmers markets, high-end grocers and restaurants across the country that order direct.

"Customers can't believe the quality of it," said David Gilbert, co-owner of the Old Yellowstone Garage restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He orders 15 to 30 pounds of Heick's cheese a week and uses it on lasagna, pizza and other dishes. "It's comparable to what's shipped from Italy."