The first time I ate an albóndiga de ricotta, it was an accident. My dinner partner and I were at our neighborhood bodegón, Albamonte, a sixty year-old, Italo-Hispano restaurant in the middle of Buenos Aires. We’d already made it halfway through a bottle of wine when the waiter approached the table to announce that the kitchen had run out of lasagna. We needed to order something else. The waiter planted himself firmly at the head of the table and stared blankly into the dining room whilst listing off every single dish on the menu over the din of the full house. A world of different pastas, sauces, appetizers, breaded meats, shellfish, and pizzas blended into one another, neither of us sure where the name of one dish ended and the next began. I heard “albóndigas” and “ricotta,” yelped “¡ese!” and felt the knot in my stomach dissolve as the waiter traipsed back to the kitchen.
“I’m sorry. I let the pressure get the best of me,” I told Evy. “I don’t even like ricotta very much.”
We assumed we were ordering albóndigas con ricotta, not thinking through the important difference between the Spanish prepositions ‘con’ and ‘de’: meatballs with (con) ricotta versus balls made from (de) ricotta. Meatballs are a common dish across Buenos Aires’ traditional restaurant scene; places that lean more towards Spanish roots spoon them over rice while the Italians serve them smothered in red sauce.
The waiter quickly returned with a metal dish that looked like the latter: A trio of breaded balls and a bubbling tomato sauce. Sans ricotta.
“Wait, but?” Evy started. Before she could finish her sentence, the waiter had already disappeared.
We dug in and realized our error when our forks offered little resistance to reveal a fluffy, eggshell white interior. The meatball is the ricotta, we laughed. It was divine: soft, flavored with specks of herbs and nutmeg, and the perfect vehicle to shovel a thick, garlicky red sauce onto our taste buds. We finished right as our waiter returned with our next plate.
I had a lot of questions: Where was this dish from? Why had I never seen it before? What do they use to bind the ricotta? Are the breadcrumbs and ricotta seasoned with the same spices? I could’ve continued but the waiter shrugged his shoulders, told us, “Yeah, they’re really good,” and moved to the next table.
After a bland first attempt at home, it was abundantly clear that ricotta is similar to tempeh or tofu: It’s an ingredient that offers texture more than flavor. I had to overwhelm it with loud herbs and spices, and top it with an equally boisterous sauce. I called María Antonieta Brignardello, a third-generation pasta maker and owner of vegan pasta business Potoca. She recommended that I start with the holy trinity of abuela-style Argentine cooking: nutmeg, white pepper, and paprika. Potoca also serves their pasta with nutritional yeast flavored with different herbs—it was an idea that inspired me to add a second cheese to mine, one with a saltier flavor that the ricotta lacks.
I tried a variety of cheeses to see which I liked best. I knew I didn’t want a fresh or soft cheese that would melt down and fall apart once it hit the heat. It needed to stay firm and hold the texture of a meatball. Pecorino Romano, with its high melting point, offered the right sharp cheese flavor without breaking down and sacrificing the balls’ structure. To complete my flavor-boosting mission, I accented the ricotta mixture with fresh parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice.
The original dish was served with a simple red sauce but to continue to kick up flavors, I decided to serve mine with a putanesca-like sauce, thick with tomato, chunky black olives, and capers. The final result wasn’t a mirror image of that very first bite back at Albamonte, but it had the surprise delicious factor all the same.
For the Tomato Sauce: In a 5-quart Dutch oven, combine olive oil and garlic and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until garlic just begins to turn very lightly golden. Stir in olives and capers and cook until just heated through, about 45 seconds.
Stir in canned tomatoes and their juices, thyme, oregano, and white pepper. Using a wooden spoon, break up tomatoes until large chunks. Season lightly with salt, then bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often, until sauce has darkened and thickened to a chunky texture, about 45 minutes. Transfer sauce to a heatproof container and set aside. Wash and dry Dutch oven.
Meanwhile, for the Ricotta Balls: In a large mixing bowl, combine ricotta, Pecorino Romano, half the parsley, lemon juice and zest, 1 teaspoon white pepper, and nutmeg, and stir until thoroughly combined. Season generously with salt. Add flour, and, using a clean hand, knead into ricotta mixture until a moist but not sticky ball forms; mix in more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if necessary. Let stand 5 minutes.
In a small mixing bowl, stir together breadcrumbs with remaining parsley, remaining 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, and a large pinch of salt. Place beaten egg in a second small bowl.
Using lightly moistened hands, roll ricotta mixture into golf ball–size balls (about 50g each). Transfer balls to a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Hold a ricotta ball in your left hand and gently roll it in the beaten egg to coat. Lift ball, allowing excess egg to drip off, then gently set in breadcrumb mixture. Using your right hand, gently roll the ball in the breadcrumb mixture to evenly coat; you may need to lightly press breadcrumbs into ricotta ball to ensure they adhere. Return to parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining ricotta balls.
In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering (a ricotta ball should being to lightly sizzle when lowered into it). Working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the pot, fry ricotta balls, rotating every 1 to 2 minutes, until evenly browned all over, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, transfer fried ricotta balls to a paper towel–lined tray.
Add sauce to olive oil in Dutch oven, stirring to combine. Bring to a simmer, then gently nestle fried ricotta balls into sauce, shaking pan gently to coat balls in sauce. Simmer gently until ricotta balls are heated through and their fried coating has absorbed some of the sauce, about 10 minutes. Coat evenly with Parmigiano-Reggiano, allow to melt slightly in the heat, then serve.