"Sinking a knife or spoon into robiolina is like dipping into lightly whipped cream. "

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[Photographs: Gina DePalma]

On my last visit to Italy this past November, I was surprised to see the number of American products popping up with regularity in Italian supermarkets. Only a few years ago Roman expats yearning for Bisquick or maple syrup had to cross the Tiber to visit the so-called "American aisle" at Castroni, the beloved specialty store that carries just about every food product a non-Italian could yearn for.

But there it was, staring out at me from the dairy case of my old neighborhood supermercato: Philadelphia brand cream cheese. For a split second, I looked around for an everything bagel to go with it. But mostly, I was confused and a little sad, because Italians have robiolina, their own, scrumptious version of cream cheese.

Luckily, the reverse situation is also happening here in the United States, where more and more upscale grocers and specialty shops are carrying robiolina. If you have never tried it before, I recommend giving these individually packaged cubes of creamy, fresh cheese a try.

What is Robiolina?

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Rich and refined, robiolina is made from full-fat cow's milk, with a super-soft, smooth texture. The slight tang is somewhat reminiscent of cream cheese, but the taste and texture are far more delicate. Missing are the gum and stabilizers that are used to make our cream cheese firm and shelf-stable. Sinking a knife or spoon into robiolina is like dipping into lightly whipped cream.

Don't confuse robiolina with the aged, soft-ripened robiola of Piedmont. Robiolina is sent to market immediately after it is made, and should be consumed soon thereafter. When you find it here in the States it has likely been flown in directly from Italy, so it is best to get it home and use it fairly quickly, within 3 days.

How to Use Robiolina

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Which brings us to how to use it. The easiest way to enjoy robiolina is to serve as a table cheese, spreading it on bread with accompaniments. Here I've spread toasted striato rounds with robiolina and finished them with some sautéed chanterelles and fresh chives. Another favorite of mine is robiolina on toast, swirled with some fig jam or honey.

There are a number of ways to cook with robiolina; it makes an excellent filling for ravioli when mixed with some soft, sautéed leeks and a bit of Grana Padano. Use robiolina to make risotto and pasta extra rich and luxurious, or melt it into some polenta with fresh herbs. I've even added it as a finishing touch to creamy vegetable soups and mashed potatoes. Just be careful to add the cheese at the end of the cooking process; because of its high fat content, it can break or separate when overheated. Robiolina can be combined with a firmer, more binding cheese like ricotta to make it easier to work with.

Look for robiolina with other imported Italian cheeses at specialty shops or from the cheesemonger. The creamy freshness and tang are fleeting and perishable, so grab it when you see it, and use it quickly.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.

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