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You gotta admire ricotta's versatility in pasta, desserts and much more

Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Variety Menu

Ricotta is probably most famous as the mild-tasting white Italian cheese that is unceremoniously stuffed into ravioli, manicotti and pasta shells, or the soft white curds that the picky eater in the family shuns in lasagna.

Yet you can do so much more with ricotta, which can be made with milk from cows, goats or sheep (or in Italy, water buffaloes). It's easy to find in your grocery store's dairy section, usually next to the cottage cheese and sour cream.

And if you're able to lay your hands on a container of fresh ricotta, even better.

Ricotta — which translates to "recooked" in Italian — is traditionally made from the liquid that's left behind (whey) during the production of other cheeses. But you also can make it with whole milk, as they've been doing for more than seven decades at Valentino Cheese in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

Joseph Gorgacz purchased the small cheese company from its original owner, Jimmy Valentino, in 1986, after working for years at a Youngstown construction company as an accountant. But his connection to the one-time dairy actually goes way back to his childhood in Union Township.

He started working for the dairy at age 12, delivering milk to help pay his way through business classes at what was then Robert Morris College, says his daughter, Kelly Gorgacz. He kept the name Valentino's after taking the reins upon Jimmy's retirement in 1986 because the dairy was so well known throughout the community.

That, and the family wasn't sure New Castle's many longtime Italian residents would purchase their ricotta cheese from someone with a Polish last name, she says with a laugh.

"Friends kid me all the time I should change my name," jokes Gorgacz, who took over the store after her father's death at age 76 in 2019.

The cheese company is also known for its homemade basket cheese (a must-have traditional ingredient in cheese-and-sausage Easter pie) and sells untold pounds of cavatelli each week along with tray after tray of hand-rolled manicotti. It also makes up to 2,000 dozen ricotta-and-mozzarella stuffed ravioli each week in the month leading up to Easter, says Gorgacz.

"And we recently started lasagna," she adds.

The company moved from the 100-year-old building in Mahoningtown it called home for more than 70 years to its current location on West State Street in 2022. But it holds tight to tradition.

Made two or three times a week to the tune of 600 pounds by cheesemaker Albert Lombardo, its fresh ricotta boasts just three all-natural ingredients: milk, salt and vinegar, to help the milk coagulate into curds after it's heated for a second time to about 180 degrees. "And we don't put in any preservatives," says Gorgacz.

Preservatives are common in commercial varieties to extend shelf life, and some also add gums and stabilizers to firm up the cheese without removing the water.

Valentino's ricotta sells for $3.50/pound in 2- or 2 1/2 -pound blocks at the store, which is open every day (except Sunday) from 8 a.m.-noon. It lasts about a week in the refrigerator. (It dries out as it ages).

Their basket cheese, meanwhile, is crafted by Pasture Maid Creamery owner and sixth-generation farmer Adam Dean using Dean's milk and his pasteurizing equipment. The process utilizes rennet instead of vinegar, resulting in a slightly firmer cheese.

It's put into the distinctive basket molds that help the cheese breathe "and we allow it to drain overnight," Gorgacz says. The basket cheese costs $6.50 per pound.

Fresh ricotta has so many uses. In addition to pasta dishes, it can be baked with garlic and a little lemon zest into a cheesy spread for crostini or crackers. It can add tang to pancakes, pitch-hit for cooked potatoes in your favorite gnocchi recipe and can add pizazz to cakes and cookies, such as the delicate Holy Cannoli cookies below.

Holy Cannoli Cookies

PG tested

Valentino Cheese made these light and feathery cookies for the grand opening of its new location on West State Street in New Castle in 2022. I used store-brand chocolate chips and added pistachios for lovely, delicate crunch.

Drizzled with melted chocolate, these treats are a perfect dessert for Easter, or any occasion that calls for a sweet treat. They're so good!

1 cup softened unsalted butter


1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 cup fresh ricotta cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon fresh orange zest

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

10 ounces mini chocolate chips (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 cup shelled pistachios, optional

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. (I used my KitchenAid mixer.) Add beaten eggs and ricotta cheese and mix until well combined.

Add vanilla extract, cinnamon and fresh orange zest.

Sprinkle in baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix until well combined. Mix in flour.

Stir in 1 cup of chocolate chips and nuts, if using. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease.

Drop 1 1/2 tablespoons of cookie dough 2 inches apart on prepared sheet. (I used a medium cookie scooper.) Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until lightly brown on bottom and around the edges. Remove to cooling rack to cool.

Microwave remaining chocolate chips in 20 second intervals, stirring in between until smooth. Drizzle over cookies.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

— Valentino Cheese, New Castle

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