That's why chef Joe Cicala, of the South Philly darling Le Virtù, and so many other chefs - from Birra, Barra, and Garces Trading Co., to name a few - have been opting to whip up ricotta, rather than buy it.
"In Abruzzo, the region we represent, ricotta is a huge part of the history. It was the cheese that shepherds would eat," Cicala says.
Of course, the process is not new to South Philadelphia, as Mancuso & Son has been making soft ricotta cheese since the '20s. But more and more young chefs are taking up the old-school tradition, seeing the value - and marketability - of the fresh, handmade products.
Technically, ricotta is not a cheese, as no rennet or starter is used to make it. Traditionally, and humbly, ricotta is made from reheating the whey that is left over from making other cheeses. (The word ricotta has roots in the Latin word recocta, which means re-cooked.)
The version that most restaurants and home cooks experiment with is simpler to make, and just as delicious. Milk is mixed with an acid, and when slowly heated, the curds and whey separate. The curds are skimmed off and left to drain in cheesecloth. After a few hours, the white gold that remains is ricotta.
Since it doesn't involve a complex process or ingredients, it's a great thing for home cooks to dabble with. Starting with the best ingredients produces the best result.
At Le Virtù, Cicala uses a mixture of fresh sheep's milk from Lancaster, with cream from a cow, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. (Starting with raw milk yields the best taste, he says, and since it is heated to about 170 degrees, it is, in essence, pasteurized.)
Gordon Dinerman combines buttermilk, heavy cream, and cow's milk to make ricotta that is dolloped on meatballs at both of his restaurants, Birra in South Philly and Barra in Old City. "It's the star of the dish," Dinerman says.
Chef Adam DeLosso - who is currently head of Garces Catering - often served fresh ricotta when he was in charge of the kitchen at Garces Trading Co. "The flavor profile is so creamy and subtle, it can pair with anything," DeLosso says.
At catered events, he prefers to plate it simply, with a touch of honey or with pickled beets and smoked pecans. He has also added heavy cream to ricotta and stuffed it inside freshly made mozzarella, creating a version of the soft-centered burrata cheese. He has also used goat's milk, which yields a slightly drier, grassier product.
"People went crazy for it," DeLosso says.
At Le Virtù, Cicala ages his ricotta as long as three months, creating a denser, firmer texture that's more like goat cheese. He's also smoked it with hickory and juniper wood, to serve alongside eggplant or grilled sausage. "It only needs about 30 seconds of smoke," Cicala says.
The rising popularity of handmade ricotta follows that of fresh-made mozzarella. Just five years ago, when Mario Batali's Los Angeles restaurant Osteria Mozza opened, the mozzarella bar was a novelty, with chefs hand-pulling mozzarella in front of salivating diners.
But a taste of this tender goodness doesn't require a transcontinental flight. At Garces Trading Co., chefs pull strands of mozzarella when an order is placed. The barely firm disk of cheese is served warm, floating in fine olive oil.
Similar variations can be found in a number of area eateries. Kristian Leuzzi, chef/owner of South Philly's Kris, has been stretching his own mozzarella for years, and serves it with tomato and basil, in panzanella salads, or alongside house-cured meats. He's also stuffed it with prosciutto.
Dinerman's cooks add fresh basil leaves to the water they pull the curds in, as well as to the cheese, which, when sliced, creates a pinwheel of color.
But the mozzarella-making process takes a little more dedication than making ricotta. Curds (which can be purchased from specialty stores) are stretched in warm water until the ideal consistency is reached.
"The stretching takes a little practice," DeLosso says. "If you overwork it, it's like rubber." He recommends slowly heating the water to 170 degrees; he prefers using an induction burner to keep the temperature consistent.
Leuzzi uses a wooden spoon to pull and roll the curds. "It'll be lumpy in the beginning," the chef says. "It's a gentle, slow process, but it does become smooth." The end result is so soft and fresh, it's not the type of thing to bake into pasta or melt in a sandwich.
The Italian cheese is even showing up at unexpected places, such as Hot Diggity, the hot doggery on South Street.
Last winter, the kitchen used the cheese in a prime example of upscaled comfort food: a riff on the Canadian dish poutine with hand-cut fries, foie gras, and mini-spheres of Hot Diggity's mozzarella cheese - a combination made in fresh-cheese heaven.
"We can get a really clean milk flavor," says owner Keith Garabedian. "The store-bought stuff is high in salt content. ... It just makes sense to make it fresh."
Not a DIY-er?
There are a few places where you can buy small-batch ricotta that is just as good as what the chefs make.
Mancuso & Son (1902 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-389-1817) has been making fresh ricotta since the 1920s.
Italian Market stalwart Claudio Specialty Foods (924-26 S. Ninth St.; 215-627-1873) sells a sweet, smooth ricotta that needs little more than a spoon.
Vermont-based Maplebrook Fine Cheese uses fresh Vermont milk and a traditional Italian method for its small-batch ricotta. (It's available at local Whole Foods stores, and just won third place in the American Cheese Society awards.) Maplebrook's tangy, fluffy product has the power to transform any dish - especially lasagna - making it worth the $6.99 price.
Makes about 1 quart of cheese
1 gallon whole cow, sheep, or goat milk (unpasteurized is best, see note)
1 quart heavy cream
Juice from 6 lemons
1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Heat slowly until temperature reaches 170 degrees. Remove from heat and allow curds to separate, about 30 minutes.
2. Skim off the curds, which will float to the top, and let stand in a colander lined with cheesecloth for a few hours or overnight. Season with whatever you would like (salt, herbs, etc.). Can be eaten immediately, or stored in the refrigerator for about 10 days.
Note: Unpasteurized milk is available at Fair Food Farmstand.
- From Joe Cicala of Le Virtù
Per quarter-cup serving: 355 calories, 9 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Cauliflower Ricotta Pudding
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing dish
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 16-ounce container whole-milk ricotta
5 large egg yolks
1 cup grated Parmesan
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 2-quart baking dish with butter.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the cauliflower and blanch until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the cauliflower and transfer immediately to a food processor. Add the 4 tablespoons butter, season with salt and pepper, and puree until smooth. Pour the cauliflower puree into a large mixing bowl and whisk in the ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper.
3. Transfer to prepared baking dish and bake until the pudding is golden brown and nearly firm in the center, about 50 minutes. Serve warm.
- From Tyler Florence Family Meal by Tyler Florence (Rodale 2010)
Per serving (based on 8): 226 calories, 14 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 17 grams fat, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 319 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.