Until I moved to Philadelphia, I rarely encountered anyone who worshipped ricotta. But here, the Italian influence runs deep, and even my students – most of whom don’t venture beyond the deli case for cheese – grow dewy eyed when they mention reh-gott-uh.
And that’s how they say it. Reh-gott-uh – you’ve got to roll the “R” and put breath into the last syllable. It should sound like a hairy Italian grandmother has taken over your body.
Ricotta isn’t hard to find, but I’ve learned that there’s a big difference between fresh ricotta and commercial brands. Your storebought versions tend to be watery and chalky – the texture reminds me of taste buds.
At Claudio’s, in South Philadelphia, the hand-made ricotta is cloud-like, not unlike mascarpone. Last night, I tried some local goat ricotta from Shellbark Farm -- it was grainy, like fine cottage cheese -- which only made me pine for the pillowy ricotta from Keswick Creamery.
Today, I went to the Italian Market on a singular mission. To find the right cheese for a resurrection dinner party. I wanted a cheese that had died and come back to life. A cheese that had undergone death and rebirth.
Baked ricotta. Naturally.
This is a new discovery for me. I am a washed-rind lover and an Alpine fiend – the mild cheeses have yet to woo me. But baked ricotta is another story. It’s toasty, like a slightly charred marshmallow. And the texture is damp and dense, with a fine skin of sweetly burnt crust.
I don’t know what makes baked ricotta rise. But it does. Then it slumps. I bought this wedge from the amazingly mustachioed Adam Balkovic at Di Bruno Bros. (he is famous for his Man Loaf), but I have read about baked ricotta. There are many recipes for those of you who like damp heat and burnt sugar.
As for me, I plan to serve my baked ricotta slightly warmed, with honey, berries, and few blanched almonds. If you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know that I’m hanging out with bosomy Italian ladies, whispering reh-gotta-uh in order to enter the gates of heaven.
To read more about baked ricotta: