My friend Frankie is the proprietor of Gaetana’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant on Christopher Street. Frankie hails from Brooklyn, and is 100% Italian-American by heritage. Specifically, Sicilian–American, with everything that implies. For example, at least in Frankie’s case, it implies an enormous brick wall festooned with Frank Sinatra memorabilia, the sounds of Sirius XM’s Sinatra station, a prominently displayed Italian flag and, at least occasionally, patrons who look and sound like they came right out of central casting. If youse know whud I mean.
None of this is intended to be the least bit ironic; nor am I dissing Frankie’s culture (it is, after all, very similar to my own Southern Italian heritage). Frankie is one of the most gregarious, generous, genuine people I know. He flirts shamelessly and charmingly with customers of all ages, genders, races, sexual orientations and whatever other demographic identities you might envision wandering in off of Christopher Street. (Well, with the exception of the panhandlers, who sometimes sneak in to hassle diners and drinkers; they get quickly and quietly escorted out.) On my first visit to the bar at his fine establishment, some fucking priest(!) ate my fucking pizza(!). Frankie gave me another one and two glasses of Chianti. For free.
Frankie’s mother—the late, great, beautiful, and by all accounts much loved Gaetana—was a wonderful cook, and Frankie was an eager and gifted student. Originally, he envisioned this restaurant venture of his as your basic neighborhood bar and pizza joint, but the menu quickly expanded to include dozens of dishes from the kitchen of his childhood:
- pastas with marinara, clam sauce, pesto, garlic & oil, vodka sauce, a wicked hot fra diavolo or a sweet bolognese. Pumpkin ravioli in brown butter & sage. Lasagna to die for.
- homemade meatballs, enormous pork chops piled with hot cherry peppers, shell steaks, several fresh fish dishes, jumbo shrimp scampi, chicken (Marsala, Milanese, Piccata, Pomodoro, Valdestano…).
- traditional soups: Pasta Fagioli, Lentil, Stracciatella. Sometimes, Italian wedding.
- cold antipasto, mussels in white wine with garlic and oil, fried calamari (ask for that with Frankie’s cocktail sauce instead of the marinara), amazing stuffed artichokes (fergawdsake people, save some of the homemade focaccia for dipping).
- Pizza. Frankie’s pizza is my all time New York favorite—and that is saying something, my friends. (I am not alone in that assessment, either.)
All of it is made to order, with really fresh ingredients. In fact, if he has the ingredients, he’ll make you anything you want. Mangia.
There are countless upscale Italian restaurants in this city, places where the decor is opulent, there are sommeliers and Executive Chefs, the cuisine is trendy and inventive, the Barolo runs $350 a bottle and watching the wait staff perform is like watching dinner theatre. Frankie’s place is nothing like that. I mean that as the highest compliment. Gaetana’s is unpretentious, welcoming, casual, inexpensive (relatively speaking) and fun, with a quirky clientele. Frankie’s sister is a waitress there, he’s got old friends on staff, and no matter their ages all the bartenders are strictly old-school. In the parlance of the food critic/foodie/food snob, Gaetana’s is what’s called a “red sauce joint,” often derisively. Done this well? There ain’t no shame in that.
But then, Dear Lard, there is the ricotta cheesecake.
If you’ve never had it, there is nothing quite like it, which makes it kind of hard to explain. It’s not as sweet as typical (“New York style”) cheesecake, and it has the subtle-but-distinct flavor of fresh citrus. But it’s the texture that really sets it apart: it’s slightly more granular than creamy, with a lightly caramelized golden-brown “crust” on top. Let me put it this way: if you enjoy savory dishes made with Italian ricotta—lasagna, manicotti, cheese ravioli—and you like cheesecake, you will freaking love this. And it turns out many people who do not care for traditional cheesecake (myself included) really love it too. Like, a lot.
Just as I do, Frankie comes from an Italian-American cooking tradition where family recipes are not written down anywhere and consist mainly of a string of helpful directives like, “Then add the chopped garlic.” How much garlic? “You know, enough.” In all likelihood this is why I had to beg him for the recipe for more than a year. One night, after the usual good-natured teasing and terribly insincere pouting on my part, he finally slammed his fist down on the bar and said, “That’s it! I’m giving you the recipe right now!” He tore a page out of a datebook, went into the kitchen and shortly thereafter handed me this:
I was so happy I nearly wept with joy. Naturally, I failed to notice that there were certain key pieces of information missing, things one typically thinks of when one hears the word “recipe.” Things I noticed the next day, like how (and how long) do you mix these ingredients? How long do you bake it? What’s the best way to cool it? And what on Earth does the cryptic scrawl “IN WATER” mean? I suddenly had a vision of Frankie in his kitchen going through the motions of making a ricotta cheesecake from memory, checking how much ricotta cheese comes in a commercial container and furiously jotting down approximations of everything else (“about, I dunno, a cuppa parmesan? what, maybe six ounces of orange juice? a couple, say, six eggs?”)
But it didn’t matter. It was indeed a recipe, Italian-style, a form of art in which I am fluent. I knew I would figure it out. And here it is.
Frankie’s Mom’s Ricotta Cheesecake
NON-FOOD ITEMS YOU WILL NEED
- an electric mixer (or a handheld whisk + something called “stamina”)
- a zester* (or multi-function grater)
- a loaf pan (for water)
- a working oven
- a refrigerator
- a springform pan**
*<—This is a zester. Use it to scrape the brightly colored skin off of the orange and lemon, taking as little of the white pith underneath as possible.
IMPORTANT SAFETY WARNING: without advanced-level training the zester is not recommended for use in the Bedroom.
- 3 lbs ricotta cheese (whole milk)
- 6 eggs
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1½ tablespoons vanilla extract***
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 6 oz. orange juice
- zest of 1 orange
- zest of 1 lemon
- dusting of powdered sugar
- fruit garnish (optional)
***Frankie wrote “2 Tbs” but he might have mean teaspoons here. Then again, maybe not. I keep forgetting to ask him. So I use about 1½ tablespoons of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla’s Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract. TRUE FACT: you really can’t go wrong here.
Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C). Place a standard loaf pan filled halfway with water on the oven’s lower shelf. Lightly coat the inside of the springform pan with unsalted butter. If it’s not a non-stick pan give it a light coat of flour, too.
Zest the lemon and the orange, and combine the zest with all the other ingredients (except the powdered sugar and optional fruit) in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix on medium-high until well-blended (about 2 mins).
Pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan. Place the springform pan on the top shelf of the oven. (NOTE: it’s fairly heavy, almost full to the brim and highly liquid at this stage, so take your time and be careful. IOW, don’t be like me.)
Bake for about 1½ hours. Maybe more. Maybe less. I don’t know. What I’m saying is your mileage will vary because mine certainly does, depending on the temperature accuracy of the oven I’m using and how often I open the door to check it, the diameter of the springform pan (larger than 9″ means a shallower cheesecake that bakes in less time), the altitude of the kitchen, the liquid content of the particular ricotta brand (which also varies with the same brand), and probably a bunch of other stuff I don’t know anything about.
For me, the best way to determine when it is finished baking is to shake the oven rack a little bit and observe the consistency: it should appear firmer (and more golden brown) around the edges, and more jiggly in the center. Like jello. Mine bakes in a little more than an hour and a half, sometimes an hour and 45 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a cooling rack for twenty minutes. The cheesecake will flatten a little bit and begin to pull away from the sides. Carefully run a butter knife around the sides of the pan to keep it from sticking. Transfer the pan to the refrigerator to cool for 3 hours. Then cover the pan pan with a lid or foil and let it cool in the refrigerator overnight.
To serve: remove the springform band. Optional: transfer cheesecake to a cake stand or plate by first loosening the bottom with a knife or thin spatula and then sliding it carefully onto the desired surface. Good luck with that.
Slice into wedges, extract each wedge with a cake server and plate it.
Optional: add fruit garnish to the plate—berries and oranges work well, and provide a nice counterpoint. I would definitely try kiwi, peaches (raw or cooked), maybe pineapple.
Dust each plated slice with powdered sugar right before serving.
Taste Frankie’s Mom’s Ricotta Cheesecake.
Last—and this is important—try to remember that there is no god. Good luck with that too.
Some notes from comparing other recipes.
Frankie’s recipe has no crust; other recipes I found have a crust, and I have tasted many delicious ricotta cheescakes that do. Frankie says that at least the traditional Sicilian recipe has no crust, and I have to say with this recipe I do not miss it. The texture of the top edge acts as a kind of crust, and of course without making crust the whole operation is simpler. One recipe I found said to coat the bottom of the pan with a mixture of sugar and breadcrumbs over the butter.
Some recipes say to bake the springform pan in a larger pan filled with water to a level about halfway up the side of the springform pan. Maybe this is what Frankie may have meant by this.—> Maybe I’ll try it next time, but it really doesn’t seem to be necessary. (Some recipes don’t even mention water at all.)
There are recipes that call for half or less of the ricotta, and some that also add cream cheese. Some have less sugar. One recipe I found has rum in it (which seems more Caribbean than Italian, but is probably delicious regardless); another is made with honey.
Some require a food processor instead of a mixer; others require straining the ricotta beforehand.
I also came across one with a lower baking temperature (300 F/150 C).
Regarding bake time, one recipe suggested baking for one hour, and then turning the oven off but keeping the cheesecake in for another hour before removing it. This seems like a cool idea, but I’d have to test it.
I’ve seen directions to cool the cake in the refrigerator uncovered for one hour instead of three (and then keep it covered until it cools completely, “6-8 hours.”).
My advice is to start with Frankie’s Mom’s recipe—it’s easy and delicious—and maybe then explore more challenging recipes. Lard knows I never will.