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A Fresh Approach

With Ricotta Cheese This Good, It's More Than Just Lasagna Filler

June 01, 2003|CAROLYNN CARRENO | Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about the Mexican drink michelada.

There comes a moment in every journey, invariably involving food, when I think, if only for one sweet, fleeting second, "I could live here." I experienced that moment again last fall in a small mountain town in Sicily after discovering the area's fresh ricotta cheese.

Luckily for me--since the truth is that my favorite part of traveling is coming home--I discovered upon my return the Gioia Cheese Co. in Pico Rivera, where Vito Girardi and his wife, Monica, make fresh ricotta and other Italian cheeses just like his family has done in Puglia for three generations.

Producing ricotta, which means "recooked" in Italian, is an economical way of reusing the whey drained off in the process of making cheeses such as mozzarella and provolone. To make ricotta, whole milk and some kind of acidity, usually vinegar or sour whey (Girardi won't reveal which he uses), is added to the whey and the mixture cooked so that it curdles.

Many Italians consider cow's milk ricotta inferior to that of sheep's milk, which is just as light in texture but has a tangier flavor and more character. Even Girardi, who produces only cow's milk cheeses, has a soft spot for the sheep's milk ricotta, which is less common in this country since sheep's milk is not widely available. "If I have to, I'm going to start raising my own sheep," he says. Bellwether Farms in Cotati does produce the sheep's milk version seasonally, beginning in April and running through November.

In this country, ricotta is probably best known for the role or, rather, the layer it plays in lasagna. "Americans don't know that lasagna isn't supposed to be made with ricotta," Girardi says. The creamy white layer is traditionally bechamel. "Don't tell anyone or we'll go out of business."

Fresh ricotta has such a delicate texture and subtle flavor that it's best eaten in a way that accentuates the cheese. In Italy, it's often served after the main course, spread on bread and sprinkled with either salt or sugar. Ricotta ravioli are topped solely with butter mixed with pasta water. For dessert, the cheese is baked into a simple tart, called a "cassata," a Sicilian specialty. The lovely creamy cheese is drizzled with honey and eaten just like that. And, of course, it is used to fill cannoli.

Toward the end of my stay in Sicily, I was taken to a little mountainside shack where they made sheep's milk ricotta that made me think I might have to abandon my country for this cheese. "You'll never be able to get this in America," a local farmer said later that evening as he prepared a dish of rigatoni tossed with ricotta and freshly ground nutmeg. "Sure I will," I hedged, swelling with a cultural pride of my own. "You can get everything in America." Thankfully, this turned out to be true.

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Rigatoni with Ricotta, Nutmeg and Spring Flowers

Serves Four

Water for boiling pasta

2 tablespoons salt

1 pound good-quality penne

A few gratings of fresh or a pinch of pre-ground nutmeg

8 ounces (1/2 pound) fresh ricotta

A handful of spring flowers such as sage blossoms, chive blossoms or nasturtiums cut into thin strips

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring water to boil. Add salt. Add penne and cook until al dente--tender but not mushy, about 8 minutes. Meanwhile, put ricotta in bottom of large pasta bowl. Add fresh nutmeg and pinch of salt. While pasta is boiling, spoon out 4 tablespoons of pasta water and add to ricotta to form a creamy consistency that will coat the pasta.

When the pasta is done, reserve some of the pasta water before draining it quickly in a colander. Do not rinse with water nor let pasta cool. Add steaming penne into pasta bowl with ricotta. Toss gently, adding a little of reserved pasta water if pasta appears to be dry. Add salt to taste. Gently toss in half of the spring flower strips. Top with fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and remaining flower strips.

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Resource Guide

Gioia Cheese Co., Pico Rivera, (562) 942-2663; Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery, Santa Monica, (310) 395-8279; sheep's milk ricotta available through Bellwether Farms, Cotati, Calif., www.bellwethercheese.com.

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