Every so often, great food memories live unrealistically in your mind: sometimes the recollection of a meal can be more vibrant than the experience actually was in reality. I feared this would be the case with the ricotta at Manhattan's Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, as there was no way that a ricotta redux could meet my inflated expectations after my first visit.
The fact that this ricotta stars in this week's column makes it pretty clear how this story ends. Indeed, we have a totally Hollywood happy ending, in which all gastronomic expectations were satisfied, and no one went home disappointed.
This week, Il Buco Alimentari is serving their ricotta with blanched sugar snap peas, honey, pinenuts, mint, and granola, which offers a totally inviting sweet-savory crunch. The last time I had the ricotta, it came with roasted beets, white grapefruit, and pistachios, and was equally effective. A few weeks ago, they served it with favas and anchovies. The bottom line: it's versatile.
While these accompaniments most definitely heightened my experience of the ricotta, it's the cheese itself that remains in my mind. It's the cheese that haunted me on my prior visit, beckoning me to return. It's the cheese that should inspire you to run not walk to the restaurant.
The Il Buco kitchen makes the ricotta fresh every morning. What I love most is how it captures that most addictive quality of great milk: tasting of sweet cream, nearly custard-like, with an unadulterated, milky cleanness. Complex in its simplicity.
But what's best of all is the ricotta's texture. It's relatively easy to find great ricotta now, but never have I tasted a ricotta that maintains such wet, fluffy curds. With such minimal handling and transport necessary from kitchen to plate, the curds retain a most delicate structure. Think about it: Soft curds are delicate, and the more that they're handled—whether it be by being packed into a container to be sold, or transported to market—the more whey they'll exude and the drier- and firmer-textured the final product will be.
Ricotta stars too often as an ingredient in a recipe, rather than as the centerpiece to a dish. Il Buco Alimentari has realized that ricotta, though being the most simple cheese of all, has enough chutzpah to stand on its own. A superb ricotta heightens other ingredients; it plays at once the humble star and the supporting actor, shining equally in each role.
If you can't make it to New York, try purchasing a really high-quality ricotta and use it as a foil for spring ingredients. Or make your own, and use excellent milk. And then, create your own appetizer, based on what you have on hand. I couldn't help but notice how similar this three-starred restaurant's application of ricotta was to theburrata dish I posted about the other week, surrounded by simply dressed favas and peas. Hurray for fresh cheeses taking center stage at a meal!
Go Get It: Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria is located at 53 Great Jones Street, just off of Bowery, in downtown Manhattan.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Nora Singley)