From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a glass of vino and mangiare!
In Italian cuisine, there is an unspoken rule that nothing should ever go to waste. From panzanella (a salad that uses old bread) to capozelle (a whole cooked sheep’s head), cucina povera, or poor/frugal food, makes use of every last morsel in the kitchen. Just like our love for cheese and our fear of Mamma’s bedroom slipper flying at us from across the room, frugality is ingrained in the minds of immigrants, the children of immigrants, and in the peasant culture of the country. Rightly so, ricotta is considered one of the prime frugal peasant foods of Italy; its name means “re-cooked” – cotta being the past participle of cuocere, or “to cook” – referring to the reuse of leftover whey after milk has been separated. With ricotta, truly nothing goes to waste, and that’s perhaps what makes this cheese so smooth and delicious. I was always taught that the leftovers are the best, most flavorful part of dinner, and indeed, the leftovers are also the best part of Italian cheese.
Like most of its cousins in the Italian cheese family, ricotta is so old that its origins are nearly impossible to place. Some scholars believe that, at the very least, the practice of reusing leftover whey started with cheesemaking itself, neolithic humans finding that cooking the byproducts of cheese only yielded more cheese (surprise!). But perhaps more importantly, most agree that ricotta came to Italy by way of Sicily, the spare whey practice migrating when Arabs from the fertile crescent – the birthplace of cheese and human civilization – conquered the southern island and ruled it as a Muslim state. Trade, migration, and conquest moved the cheese further into Italy, and by the height of the Holy Roman Empire, ricotta was widespread throughout Rome and beyond, perfected as it is today. Humanity and early civilization might lay claim to the birth of ricotta, but Italians – and particularly Sicilians – made it what it is.
Coming from Sicily, then, ricotta in its truest Italian form comes from sheep’s milk, which is the richest and creamiest of the three main varieties (cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk). Sheep are the primary type of livestock on the island, believed to have originated from the Greek migration in the early centuries AD, and therefore ricotta most often comes as the byproduct of staple Sicilian cheeses like Pecorino Siciliano DOP. The cheese here is creamy and often a little grassy since sheep only require cheap grass and feeds to survive. Throughout the rest of Italy, though, the type of milk – and the flavor – change based on the climate and surrounding environment. In the Po Valley and along the Alpine migration routes, ricotta is made from cow’s whey after the production of provolone, Taleggio, or Gorgonzola. The flavor here is much lighter and milder, though the “tired cows” still make richer milk than cattle in other regions. Likewise, in Campana where the water buffalo is the animal of choice (another rich and creamy milk type), ricotta comes from the byproduct of Mozzarella di Bufala, giving the cheese a sweeter, butterier flavor than the cheaply fed sheep. Because it is so widespread, ricotta’s DOP varieties are not restricted to one region in particular; Ricotta Romana is licensed to the entirety of centrally located Lazio (including Rome) while, in the south, Ricotta di Bufala Campana spans all of the Campania region (Naples, Pompeii, Salerno, and other coastal cities) and across Lazio, Molise, and Puglia – most of southern Italy. In this sense, ricotta is truly a southern Italian treasure, but loved across the entire country.
Ricotta holds another title too; just like mozzarella, it’s one of the easiest Italian cheeses to make, requiring only a few minutes of production before it’s sold fresh to hungry consumers. What makes it so simple is that, contrary to popular belief, the cheese does not undergo additional coagulation. If a cheesemaker adds acid to the whey and more curds float to the surface, then he wasn’t patient enough when making his first cheese. Still, many DIY cheesemakers insist on trying to curdle the whey, only to get poor results. Che babbei. (Blockheads.)
Regardless of the milk, it all starts the same way. Leftover whey is poured into a metal container and heated – over a fire in the old-world method – to a boil. Whey is still packed with keratin proteins (but absent of the usual casein in regular cheese; thus, people with casein intolerance can eat ricotta), and these solids float to the top, clumping together in a mush that can be skimmed off. Sometimes cheesemakers will add a splash or two of uncurdled milk to enrich the ricotta, but the practice varies from farm to farm. The cheesy mass is then scooped up and poured into little baskets, which drains the cheese of excess water and solidifies it further. Within a couple of minutes (yes, just like that), you have ricotta ready to go, and it’s shipped out, unsalted, to stores within a few hours. The remaining water, still packed with other nutrients, is often added to livestock feed to promote the animals’ health. It’s a win-win situation for animals, farmers, and consumers.
Sometimes rogue cheesemakers will stray from the path of fresh ricotta, and thus Italians have seen the rise of two alternate varieties: ricotta salata and ricotta affumicata. Salata, meaning salted, is the exact opposite of what fresh ricotta makers don’t do (but it’s still a rather tasty departure) – they lightly salt the cheese and then age it for about sixty to ninety days. Traditional ricotta is meant to have a sweet, milky, fresh flavor with a soft, creamy consistency. This variety, however, is a crumbly solid, and while it still retains the milky flavors, sweetness is replaced with a lactic saltiness, making it more of a pairing cheese rather than a cheesy ingredient. In the same vein, affumicata (smoked) is lightly salted and aged, although the smoke is what takes away the majority of the cheese’s sweetness. In Calabria, cheesemakers produce Ricotta Affumicata di Mammola, a regional product eaten at feasts to celebrate fertility. Before smoking, the cheese is fashioned into a certain male-oriented accoutrement, and is then sliced and shaved onto various dishes. I’m sure the men of the village don’t prepare those meals.
Tucking away those unsavory serving methods, ricotta – smoked, aged, or fresh – is as versatile as it is delicious. Like most other Italian cheeses, it’s the perfect ingredient to use in pasta dishes and provides filling for most ravioli, tortellini, and lasagna. It’s also a prime pizza topping and, next to mascarpone (a wealthy person’s cheese by cultural comparison), makes a superb filling for fresh burrata or cannoli. My mamma also uses it in her cheesecake, although if I told you the recipe, I’d have to kill you. What I can give you, however, is a great equivalent – a traditional New York cheesecake with an Italian spin. Also try this holiday tradition, Zeppole di San Giuseppe, a doughy, sweet ricotta-filled fritter served on the feast of Saint Joseph. And, of course, nothing beats a spoonful of fresh ricotta when you’re craving some, as I often do when I’m away from home for too long.
Since it’s fresh, ricotta encounters the same importing problems as mascarpone. Thus, most imported types are either salata or affumicata, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one outside of a major city. Here are a few American brands that can measure up, although if you’re ever in Italy, be sure to stop by a cheese shop and try some fresh!
- Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. – a ricotta made from the traditional sheep’s milk, giving it the same richness as you’d find in southern Italy
- Luizzi Angeloni Cheese – made with love by a proud Italian immigrant, this ricotta keeps its integrity through a cheesemaker who knows his stuff
- Narragansett Creamery – Rhode Island’s only cheesemaker keeps everything local and makes their ricotta in small batches only
- BelGioioso – if you want something available in any supermarket, this producer is your best option, making batches upon batches with fresh Wisconsin cow’s milk
Thank you for following me this summer on my adventure through the world of Italian cheese. Though we’ve only met a few members of this enormous family, I hope I’ve given you a better sense of this mondo delizioso and the encouragement you need to keep exploring on your own. There’s a centuries-old saying that goes, Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire. No matter where you go or turn, you will always end up at home. For me, no matter what Italian cheese I sink my teeth into, I always think of Mamma’s cooking and the loud family gatherings, festival foods and giant holiday feasts. Next time you take a bite, try to imagine a place, and I promise you that no matter where it is, it’ll feel like home.
Grazie mille, e dalla mia famiglia al vostro, buona tavola!