I used to hate ricotta. As a child I would visit my great grandmother in Highland Park, NJ for Sunday lunch. Every week, I would begrudgingly eat her homemade ravioli beneath a copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and more crucifixes than I care to remember. Her ravioli di ricotta, by all accounts, were some of the New Jersey’s best (this is the only thing my parents have ever agreed upon, so it must be true). I couldn’t stomach the consistency of ricotta at the time so I refused to eat them, excavating the cheese from inside each raviolo, shoving it to the side of my plate and eating the remaining pasta with its accompanying red sauce. If I had only known then what I know now! But there is no use dwelling on these squandered culinary experiences of my youth, so I have managed to push forward and have spent the past 20 years making up for all the ricotta I missed by snubbing my great grandmother’s ravioli. In fact, I rarely turn it down no matter what form it is in: straight, in a cannolo or cassata, as raviolo filling, salata, scante, the list goes on….
The last month in particular has been a ricotta free-for-all. It reached its peak during a trip to Puglia where, over the course of a 1 week period, I must have eaten it at every meal. I even visited 3 cheese producers (2 caseifici and a farm). I had never seen it made before and it was so interesting to watch the process. It is produced using the residue from cow’s milk cheeses (in some parts of Italy like Sicily and Lazio, it is made from sheep’s milk). The leftover liquid is heated and the whey that floats to the top is skimmed of and spooned into plastic containers where it compacts and sets.
At Caseificio Pugliese in Corato near Bari, two men work for hours making thousands of containers of ricotta from the byproduct of cow’s milk cheeses. It is then sent to local delis, supermarkets and restaurants.
Perhaps the most beautiful ricotta moment that I witnessed was during a visit to a farm near Ostuni. My friend and I spent a good hour looking for it in the middle of the country on unmarked and unpaved roads. When we finally found it, the farmer’s grandson came outside and sat near us on the patio. He brought his afternoon snack: a dixie cup full of fresh ricotta, still hot, which he proceeded to eat as though it were a container of yogurt. We bought 2 cups for a euro each and as we drove off, leaving the remote farm in the distance, I couldn’t help but ponder how my life would have been different if I had loved great grandma’s ravioli.