Snapshots From Italy: Puglia’s Mouth-Numbing Ricotta Forte

Editor’s Note: Serious Eats correspondent Carey Jones, eating her way around Italy, will be reporting back from Rome, Bologna, Tuscany, and Puglia.

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Photo from ArthurAvenue.com

The word “ricotta,” in my mind, effectively translates to “mild.” While Italy taught me to appreciate just how silky and subtle a fresh, creamy ricotta could be, I’d still rank it right around cottage cheese in terms of flavor intensity. Until I met Puglia’s ricotta forte, that is—a mouth-numbing cheese of an entirely different color.

I first encountered ricotta forte in Rome, curiously enough. (Regions of Italy may cling to their own culinary traditions, but cross-pollination does inevitably occur.) At Osteria Del Rione—one of those bare-bones basement eateries with no menu, no wine list, and more food and wine served than you could possibly finish off—our host appeared with bread and a dish I couldn’t identify, a small tub of something creamy and white. Whipped butter? In Rome, I doubted it. Soft cheese? I couldn’t imagine what kind. So I smeared a bit on my bread and took a bite.

Oh, it was cheese—a painfully sharp soft cheese, so pungent that my eyes started to tear. Its harsh, acidic tang felt like an assault, wiping out any taste of the bread and any lingering notes of the wine I’d been sipping. This was stronger than any blue cheese I’d ever eaten. But behind that initial intensity was a creamy, far less sour finish. Almost despite myself, I liked it.

A few bites into our next course, my mouth wouldn’t stop throbbing, then tingling, almost as if it were going numb. That’s when my dining companion looked over at me quizzically. “Is your mouth… tingling?” he asked. I nodded. “It’s the cheese.”

20090403sign.jpgWe asked our host what exactly we were eating, but he shook his head. “Formaggio forte,” he answered impatiently. Well, yes, that was clear. But what was it called? “Formaggio forte. Formaggio piccante.” Strong and spicy—fair enough. But it wasn’t until I discovered the same innocent-looking cheese at Osteria Del Borgo Antico, down in Gioia del Colle, that I learned the whole story.

The Puglians have always been smart about making the most of their food, and this tangy cheese—ricotta forte, also called ricotta scanta—couldn’t be a better example. Ricotta actually translates to “re-cooked”; the white stuff we know from lasagna and cannoli is made from the by-product of other cheeses. When a dairy makes, say, mozzarella, it separates milk into curds and whey, and the hard curds are heated and stretched into cheese. But the leftover liquid retains some milk protein—so when that whey is reheated, almost to its boiling point, it releases another, more delicate curd that becomes ricotta cheese.

So ricotta itself makes wise use of leftovers. But like most fresh cheeses, real ricotta is best eaten within a day or two. What if there’s extra ricotta? The Sicilians add salt and dry the stuff out, producing a dry, crumbly cheese called ricotta salata that’s not too different from feta. But the Pugliese just let theirs go bad. If ricotta is allowed to spoil under controlled conditions, stirred every few days, it thickens and sours. And within a few months, it becomes the painfully pungent ricotta forte that I’d grown to love.

Cheeses this powerful tend to be locally acquired tastes, and the only importer of ricotta forte I’ve found in the States has been Arthur Avenue up in the Bronx. Serious Eaters, have you seen this cheese sold elsewhere? Let us know.

Osteria Del Rione
Via Basento 20, Rome (map)
Osteria Del Borgo Antico
Via Spada 62 Gioia del Colle, Bari, Puglia (map)

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