The first time I tasted fresh ricotta cheese, I was at lunch at an Italian restaurant in New York. I’d ordered dessert; my friend had requested a cheese course. Nevermind what I got, and nevermind that I don’t consider cheese dessert. All I could see was the snowy, white mound drizzled with a richly colored chestnut honey on his plate.
I reached across the table and took a bite. Made from sheep’s milk, the delicate curd was creamy and luxurious, yet tangy and complex -- altogether wonderful. In combination with the faintly sweet honey, it was so subtle, so intriguing and so delicious, I about fell out of my chair.
Ricotta, which literally means “re-cooked” in Italian, is a member of a family of cheeses known as whey cheeses. It uses the whey left over after the production of other cheeses, such as mozzarella or provolone, whereby, after the initial process of cooking the milk to separate the curd from the whey, the whey is cooked to form a second curd: ricotta cheese.
Ricotta can be made from cow, sheep, goat or buffalo milk. In Italy, the type of milk from which ricotta is made largely depends on the region -- but all over the country, ricotta is prized for its delicacy and freshness. It is bought the day it is made and eaten the day it’s purchased, unless it is being used in baking or as a filling. In the latter case, it may be set aside in a colander or the perforated basket in which it is most often sold to drain for two or three days, creating a drier cheese that holds up when baking dishes such as cassata, the classic Sicilian ricotta torte.
Shortlist of suppliers
Here, sheep’s milk ricotta, domestic or imported, is difficult, although not impossible, to find. A few domestic cheese makers produce sheep’s milk ricotta, but only for a short, springtime season. One to look for is Bellwether Farms’ excellent version. Very little of this ricotta, made in Sonoma County, makes it to Southern California, as the majority is delivered to Bay Area chefs who covet the seasonal delicacy. But occasionally the Cheese Store of Silverlake (at $9.99 a pound) and the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills (at $15 a pound) do carry it. And you don’t have to buy a full pound, but as little -- or as much -- as you need.
When you can find it, the more complex flavor of the sheep’s milk curd adds another dimension to any recipe calling for fresh ricotta. Anyone who hasn’t tasted cannoli or cassata in Sicily made with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta “at the seasonally favorable moment cannot know what cannoli or cassata really are,” says Victor Hazan, husband and collaborator of Italian food maven Marcella Hazan.
But when fresh, cow’s milk ricotta also becomes a prized ingredient. And unlike sheep’s milk ricotta, it is available year-round -- and it’s easy to find very fresh in Los Angeles because it’s made here. A local producer puts out a ricotta that rivals those made in Italy -- a delightful surprise to anyone who thinks of ricotta as the flavorless, rubbery, cottage cheese-like curd in the refrigerator section of grocery stores.
Used by L.A.'s most discerning chefs, the cow’s milk ricotta is made daily by Gioia in South El Monte. The company’s owner, Vito Girardi, is continuing a family tradition that extends back to his homeland, Puglia. Gioia began making the cheese 12 years ago and today delivers to many cheese shops and better restaurants locally.
Gioia’s fresh ricotta is rich, with a creamy texture, but it is also slightly dry, from its whey having been drained as is traditional in Italy. Its taste is mild, with slightly buttery nuances. At $4.49 a pound at Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery in Santa Monica (or $5.99 a pound at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills), this is a bargain.
For most American cooks, ricotta means one thing: lasagna. But ask an Italian what to do with ricotta, and he or she is likely to look at you as if you’ve asked what to do with butter. Eat it on bread. Sprinkle it with salt. Sprinkle it with sugar. Toss it with pasta. Mix it with sugar and pour espresso over it, for a sort of breakfast affogato. And that’s before you’ve even turned on the stove or oven.
In cooking, use ricotta to make gnocchi; lighter than potato gnocchi, they are like little clouds that absorb the flavor of the ragu they are classically tossed with. And of course ricotta fills tarts, cannoli and ravioli. A classic Sardinian dessert is deep-fried ricotta-filled ravioli drizzled with lavender honey, a dish that, as far as I’m concerned, could be the last word in desserts.
Terrific any way
Ricotta’s virtues as a pasta filling are beyond question in a recipe by New York chef Mario Batali in his just-published “Molto Italiano” cookbook. The fresh ricotta (either sheep’s milk or cow’s milk) is mixed with aromatic ingredients (nutmeg, parsley and Parmesan), and the sauce enhanced with sage. The resulting ravioli are like light little pillows, a bite into one revealing a delightful pocket of the creamy curd.
A simpler way to enjoy fresh ricotta is the way Girardi and his wife, Monica, have it at home. Monica Girardi slices the cheese, dips it in egg, dredges it in flour, and fries it in olive oil -- a method she learned from her mother-in-law. The quick cooking slightly warms and softens the ricotta. The olive oil enhances the flavor. The fried cheese is lovely sprinkled with coarse sea salt, served on a bed of lemon and olive oil-dressed arugula or with sliced, ripe tomatoes.
In fact, the mild flavor of ricotta lends itself to all kinds of experimentation. Salvatore Marino, chef-owner of Il Grano in West Los Angeles, purees the creamy curd with sofritto (a mixture of sauteed vegetables that are the foundation of many Italian dishes) and vegetable stock to make a rich soup served either on its own or topped with a small piece of sauteed red mullet, black truffles or fresh burrata cheese. He got the idea from ricotta di fruscella, the skin skimmed off a batch of ricotta just after it coagulates, which Marino knew his grandfather to enjoy on a piece of bread, sprinkled with sugar.
As lovely as Marino’s soup is, when I find myself with a tub of fresh ricotta, it rarely makes it into such deliberate preparations. I mix it with milk and sugar into a sweet soup that I might top with fresh strawberries.
But most likely, I’ll spoon it into a bowl, drizzle it with chestnut honey, sit down, dip in and swoon.