Joan Jett sounds like a barking seal as she bellows at her son, Roy Orbison, hoping to keep him out of trouble. The 40-pound baby is small and adorable now, but if he's lucky, he'll eventually take on the tall, dark Mediterranean looks of his dad, Van Morrison, rather than end up like Elvis or Neil Young -- turned into steers.

It's another idyllic day in the rolling, green West Marin countryside, where Craig Ramini's herd of 33 water buffalo are all named after aging rock stars. The reinvented dairyman is now firing on all cylinders after spending years in a trial-and-error period of learning how to raise these horned beasts, milk them and produce mozzarella di bufala as luscious as their Italian counterparts.

Ramini chucked his successful Silicon Valley software career in 2009 for a crusade aimed at doing what few Americans have mastered: producing snow-white, pillowy soft buffalo mozzarella with its richer-than-cows'-milk flavor and subtle tang.

He struggled. Just learning how to milk the lactating females in his "borderline feral" starter herd was difficult.

"I had uncooperative animals," he recalls. "I'm asking them to come into a building and stand still and get handled in their private parts. They were like, 'What?!'"

Educated by trips to water buffalo dairies in Canada and Australia, Ramini built a custom milking stand that eventually helped him get enough high-fat, lower-cholesterol milk to start making cheese. Unfortunately, his early results were so disappointing that he donated them to a local pig farmer. "I hope I get some prosciutto from it," he says wistfully.


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Ramini made some progress after visits to two Italian producers, except for the biggest challenge: untangling the softness conundrum.

"I don't have words for how difficult it was to make soft, luscious cheese instead of hard-as-a-pencil-eraser cheese," he says. "Then, it dawns on you: I need to get these 10 things just right."

Today, his milking herd "is in a deep groove," he says, and there's a waiting list among the regional chefs who comprise most of his customers. They include serious-minded Italian cuisine masters such as Craig Stoll of San Francisco's Delfina empire, John Franchetti of the Rosso restaurants in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, and Louise Franz from San Anselmo's Pizzalina.

"Because it's local and delivered fresh, the flavor is incredible," Franz says. "You can almost taste the grasses the water buffalo feed upon."

Besides the requisite Neapolitan pizza, Franz serves Ramini's cheese in dishes like a sweet-tart winter caprese that uses citrus -- Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and tangelos -- rather than tomatoes. And she whips up appealing bruschetta starters featuring the creamy cheese with a variety of toppings, ranging from minted asparagus and speck to balsamic onions with fennel brittle.

Ramini says his cheese "is best eaten within 72 hours" and should be the star of simple preparations. Some chefs even offer it solo. "There's this experience of biting into a fresh ball of mozzarella," he says. "The juice dribbles down your chin like a fresh peach."

Ramini believes he is currently the country's only farmstead buffalo mozzarella operation, because the economics are fierce in a business that involves low-production animals and tricky cheesemaking techniques.

Applying lessons learned in the business world, he earns more by not selling through distributors. Besides his list of blue-chip Italian restaurants, his cheese has limited availability through retailers, including Paradise Foods in Ramini's hometown of Tiburon and later this year, Dean & DeLuca in St. Helena.

But you can get a sample during Saturday tasting tours at his operation outside Tomales, where guests bring picnic supplies and coo at the baby buffalo.

Now barely in the black, Ramini says he isn't the usual "hobby farmer or winemaker who just writes checks. I'm as hands on as you can imagine. Literally. The v-seam on the back of the (mozzarella) ball is in the shape of my hand."

More Mozzarella
Artisan Cheese Festival: Take a farm tour at Ramini Mozzarella and other farms, listen to cheesemaking seminars, watch chef demonstrations and sample the fromage at the eighth annual artisan cheese festival. March 21-23 at the Sheraton in Petaluma; artisancheesefestival.com
Ramini Mozzarella tours: Saturday tours and tastings at Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales are by appointment and cost $20 per person. Find details at www.raminimozzarella.com.