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Before Batali Or Bourdain, There Was Di Palo’s In Little Italy

Lou Di Palo

Lou Di Palo, right, at Di Palo's in Little Italy, New York. Credit: Ballantine Books.

Four generations of Di Palos have run an Italian specialty market in New York City’s Little Italy, so having Lou Di Palo, great-grandson of the founder, write a guide to Italian ingredients, “Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy,” is a natural. Each chapter in this fun collection focuses on a specific food with history, buying and storing tips, and recipes. Discover everything you need to know about fresh mozzarella, ricotta, olive oil, espresso and more.

I’ve been shopping at Di Palo’s since I was old enough to ride the subway alone and was charmed by this incredible collection of stories, factoids and advice. The history of a store that’s been a fixture in the neighborhood for more than a century is a fascinating glimpse into the history of Italian food in America. Countless celebrities shop there and some sing Lou Di Palo’s praises on the book jacket, including Ruth Reichl and Pete Hamill. Martin Scorsese wrote the book’s foreword.

Frommer’s wisely notes, “Before there was Mario Batali or Anthony Bourdain, there was Lou Di Palo, a true New York food celebrity.”

Buying ricotta

Below is an excerpt from Di Palo’s book on buying ricotta:

“Like other latterias, we sell ricotta in several shapes: In tall perforated metal tins with a mound of ricotta piled up on top to keep it pressing down, or in squat woven baskets made of plastic. The former are drier and better for cooking or baking, the latter are best when you want to serve ricotta sliced on a plate, drizzled with honey or jam. We also stock imported sheep’s milk ricotta when sheep are giving milk. It is at its best in the spring, when the grass is new and sweet — if you see imported sheep’s milk ricotta in the summer, it’s likely not very good.

“You’ll also sometimes see ricotta forte, or ‘strong ricotta,’ a specialty from Puglia that got its start as a way to use up older product. What vinegar is to wine, ricotta forte is to ricotta. It smells and tastes like a strong gorgonzola. It’s simply fermented ricotta, or ricotta turned a little sour, with a little fresh ricotta added for balance. (We usually don’t eat it fresh, but add it to calzones or stir in a spoonful to tomato sauce.)

“When ricotta is salted and pressed, over time it becomes a solid cheese with a much longer shelf life, though it still retains its fresh, milky flavor. There are two versions, both called ricotta salata, or salted ricotta: One is very dense, dry, and salty and is typically grated onto pasta. The other is more of a table cheese — it’s moister and less salty and very good with slices of fresh tomato or drizzled with olive oil.

“The funny thing is that they usually go by the same name, so you have to ask to make sure you are getting the right one. Sicilians also bake ricotta into a mild cheese called ricotta infor­nata, which is firmer, with a more caramelized flavor. We make it at Di Palo’s too, some­times baked with acacia or chestnut honey.

“In addition to ricotta, one of the most common formaggio frescos made in Italy is called caciotta, and we also make that daily at Di Palo’s. It’s made like ricotta, but we use rennet to break the milk rather than vinegar. The milk is heated to a lower tempera­ture, and then it is also pressed a little more intensely into a basket shape and aged for a day or two. It’s similar to American ‘farmer’s cheese,’ and is a little drier and more solid than ricotta. There is also cacioricotta, which is a dry, denser caciotta made at the same high temperature as ricotta and then salted. It’s usually shaved or grated over pasta.”

The following recipes are excerpts from the book:

Concetta Di Palo’s Meatballs

Yield: 4 servings

My grandmother simmered her meatballs in her sauce, but her real secret weapon was our ricotta. It keeps the meatballs incredibly moist, and adds a little richness. Because she was from Basilicata, she actually used a mix of caciocavallo, or whatever aged pecorino she had on hand, rather than provolone or pecorino Romano, but good quality versions of these two cheeses are much easier to find. Whenever we make these in our store, they go quickly.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound of ground beef, about 20 percent fat to 80 percent lean
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • ¼ pound grated aged provolone
  • ¼ pound freshly grated pecorino Romano
  • ½ pound fresh, good quality, whole milk ricotta
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 quart marinara sauce

Directions

  1. In a large bowl, mix meat, egg, bread crumbs, cheeses, garlic, and parsley well with your hands.
  2. Roll into small meatballs, about 2½ inches wide, and place onto a sheet pan.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat the marinara sauce over low heat.
  4. Heat an inch of olive oil over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add meatballs, cooking them in batches, if necessary, and pan-fry until browned on all sides.
  5. Place meatballs in marinara sauce and let simmer for 20 minutes.

 

Concetta Di Palo’s Ricotta Cheesecake

Yield: 19-inch cake

This recipe from my grandmother Concetta is a good example of our cooking philosophy: Let the ingredients speak for themselves. This cake is rich, moist and less sweet than traditional American cheesecakes — a little more complex. We’ve been handing out this recipe since at least World War II — you can tell by the zwieback cookies the original recipe called for. The current ver­sion is on a postcard with a caricature of my father scowling from the back of the store, drawn by Soho artist Jacob El Hanani, who has been shopping with us for decades. We had the same photo screen-printed onto a tile that we placed in our dairy when we renovated a few years ago, so my father could still watch over us as we made the ricotta, just like he used to.

Ingredients
Butter for greasing the pan
2 cups sugar, divided use
½ cup crushed zwieback cookies or graham crackers, plus extra for garnish
3 pounds good quality, fresh, whole cow’s-milk ricotta
6 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 teaspoons orange blossom water
¾ cup of heavy cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter a 9-inch springform pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix ½ cup of the sugar with the cookies or crackers and then evenly coat the bottom and sides of the buttered pan with the mixture.
3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, orange blos­som water and cream together until very smooth.
4. Pour mixture into springform pan. To prevent the cheesecake from cracking, place into a larger pan or oven-proof dish and fill it halfway up the side with water.

Main photo: Lou Di Palo at Di Palo’s counter in Little Italy. Credit: Ballantine Books



Zester Daily contributor Francine Segan, a food historian and expert on Italian cuisine, is the author of six books, including "Pasta Modern" and "Dolci: Italy's Sweets." She is a host on i-italy TV and is regularly featured on numerous specials for PBS, the Food Network and the History, Sundance and Discovery channels.

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