Menu Development
By Pasquale “Pat” Bruno Jr.

This month, The Cheese Whiz is addressing two important cheeses –– ricotta and ricotta salata. Though similar in name, these two cheeses are like night and day. Let me explain.

In this country, ricotta is made from whole or partially skimmed cow’s milk. Italian ricotta is made from sheep's-milk whey. Similarly, ricotta salata (ree-COH-tah sah-LAH-tah) is made from sheep’s milk whey (or in some cases, whey and whole milk).

Having said that, I quickly add that the two cheeses are vastly different in texture and taste. American ricotta may not have the same mild and nutty flavor as Italian ricotta, but in the way and style that we use ricotta in this country it is a better choice overall, because it is quite a bit moister and a bit sweeter than the Italian version and lends itself to those dishes that we know so well (lasagne, ravioli, manicotti, stuffed shells)

Now, the ricotta salata is a wonderful cheese, a cheese that you should seek out. It is firm and smooth in texture and nutty in flavor, with a slightly salty aftertaste. In fact, the texture (dense, yet slightly spongy) of this cheese allows for grating or cutting into chunks (similar to feta cheese). I use Ricotta salata in salads of all types, including a basic green salad. It complements spinach in many ways. Ricotta salata is delicious with oil-cured olives and crusty Italian bread. Once you try this wonderful cheese and put it into use you will know why I am so high on ricotta salata.

Rigatoni with Spinach and Ricotta Salata

The great part about this dish is that it can be served as a hot pasta dish or as a cold pasta salad. No salt is used because the ricotta salata has just enough saltiness to carry the dish. Add pepper to taste, though.

Yield: 4 servings

6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup of chopped oil-cured black olives

2 cloves garlic, pressed

1 pound rigatoni

10 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves

1 cup (about 6 ounces) grated ricotta salata

Combine the olive oil, olives and garlic. Set aside. Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain well.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta with spinach leaves. Toss quickly to wilt the spinach just a bit. Now add the olive and olive oil mixture. Just before serving, sprinkle on the ricotta salata.

Ricotta Al Espresso

This is a fine dessert, one that you can make ahead and keep in individual, covered parfait glasses in the reach-in cooler. Creamy and rich-tasting with a mousse-like consistency, it can be garnished with fresh strawberries or, as I do here, with chopped pistachios. If you don't want to use the liqueurs, add 1 additional tablespoon of espresso. In place of the pistachios you can use mini chocolate chips.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

115-ounce carton ricotta cheese

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup freshly brewed espresso, cooled

2 tablespoons Sambuca or anisette

1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios

Put the ricotta cheese, sugar, coffee and Sambuca in a food processor and process until creamy and thick. Spoon the mixture into tall serving glasses. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

Just before serving, sprinkle some of the chopped pistachios over the cheese.

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