NPR listener Alice Benner says her Italian grandmother made ravioli that was "indescribably delicious."
Benner told us that she's tried to re-create the recipe many times. "The dough — the consistency — is totally wrong, usually too thick," she writes.
Benner's grandmother used Romano cheese in the filling — probably from an Italian deli in Chicago — but Benner says when she makes the ravioli, "the Romano cheese I've used never has the same punch. I've all but given up trying to make them."
Unfortunately, Benner didn't have her grandmother's recipe, only a memory of the dish, so she asked All Things Considered's Lost Recipes project for help.
We reached out to Oldways, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving traditional cooking, and they suggested we contact an expert on Italian food, Julia della Croce.
Della Croce was intrigued by two ingredients in the filling: the rice and the Romano cheese. And she used her knowledge of regional Italian cooking to unravel the ravioli.
She asked Benner in an email: "Did her grandmother use olive oil or butter? Answer: olive oil. Did she cook with tomato sauce? Answer: Yes. So the olive oil and the tomato sauce put her either in the central or southern part of Italy. But then again, there was the rice, which put her in the northern part of Italy."
Della Croce was getting warmer. Turns out, Benner's family came from Tuscany, and they were shepherds. So della Croce delved into her collection of cookbooks from the Tuscany and Liguria regions and found a historical recipe for spinach and rice ravioli that was nearly identical to the one Benner had described.
But there was still one ingredient to puzzle over: the Romano cheese, or pecorino Romano. "It's a very sharp, very salty, aged sheep's cheese. And I knew that would overpower the other ingredients," says della Croce.
It also wouldn't melt during cooking to help bind the filling together. "It would have to be a younger cheese, which would give it a melting quality, but have a more mellow flavor," she notes.
Della Croce suggested Benner try a Tuscan sheep's cheese, or pecorino Toscano, for the filling, since that's her family's home region. Sure enough — Alice Benner had her spinach and rice ravioli, the way Nonna used to make it.
You can find the recipe della Croce adapted for Benner here.
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