Say Cheese

By Rebecca Marx

Originally published on Advocate.com October 22 2008 12:00 AM ET

“If cheese were a rock star,” proclaims the website of ricotta cheese purveyor Salvatore Bklyn, “it’d be Salvatore Bklyn.” Ricotta, the fluffy, unassuming building block for lasagna or cheesecake, hasn’t achieved pop-icon status yet. But thanks to Betsy Devine and Rachel Mark, the couple who make the cheese under the Salvatore Bklyn moniker, it may well be on its way. In the two years since they began this artisanal adventure out of their Brooklyn kitchen, their impossibly luscious ricotta has won a major following among chefs, curd nerds, and gourmet shoppers alike.

Mark, 27, and Devine, 31, never planned to go into the ricotta business. They met in 2003 when Mark answered a Craigs-list ad posted by Devine and friends, who were in search of a roommate for their apartment in New York City’s East Village. “She beat out the competition,” Devine recalls fondly. The two quickly became a couple and then, during a trip to Italy in 2005, they met Salvatore Farina, a gregarious Italian who befriended them and treated them to local delicacies such as ricotta bruschetta at his enoteca, or wine shop, in San Gimignano.

When they returned to New York they decided to move to Brooklyn and make their own ricotta, in part because they couldn’t find any that evoked the madeleine-like qualities of Sal’s. So they started experimenting in their kitchen. The first batches weren’t that great. But when they finally got it right, Devine brought the cheese to Lunetta restaurant, where she was working, and got chef Adam Shepard to put it on the menu. “That’s where it began gaining traction,” Mark says. Soon she and Devine were selling their cheese out of Lunetta.

As the cheese’s fame spread by word of mouth, Salvatore Bklyn was born. Devine’s past experience working in a specialty food supplier, where she learned the importance of customer service, came in handy. So did Lunetta’s kitchen, where Devine made the cheese when the restaurant was closed. Eventually, Mark, who handles the business side of the venture, secured accounts with specialty stores and high-end New York restaurants like Per Se and Blue Hill.

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One of those specialty stores is Saxelby Cheesemongers, a small shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that’s influential in spreading the gospel of artisanal American cheese. Its proprietor, Anne Saxelby, is unstinting in her praise of Salvatore Bklyn’s fresh, lemony flavor and distinctive texture, noting that Devine’s practice of straining the cheese results in a denser, creamier consistency than most ricottas have. “It’s in a league of its own,” Saxelby says.

Devine’s ricotta-making method is deceptively simple. She uses only local, hormone-free milk from the Hudson Valley Fresh cooperative with lemon juice and salt, which she combines and heats for two hours, strains, then chills for 12 more hours. The current output? Some 200 pounds of cheese a week (there’s a part-time employee to help).

Delivering the final product, which both women do using Mark’s brother’s 1981 sky-blue Mercedes-Benz, is one of their biggest challenges (they’ve got the parking tickets to prove it). While the logistics of parallel parking in “the longest car you’ve ever seen” are problematic, Mark says, hand delivery to appreciative customers is one of the biggest pleasures.

The daunting state of the economy may pose difficulties for any specialty product, including artisanal cheese. Though the women’s business hasn’t been affected yet, “everyone we sell to has a look of fear in their eyes,” Devine says. “The thought has crossed my mind that this might not be the best environment to grow a boutique cheese company in. But we’ll see.”

Prudence hasn’t kept the couple from thinking about expansion, though. Some of the ideas they’ve been tossing around include a Salvatore Bklyn mozzarella and a storefront in the tradition of old-school latterias that sold only cheese. “My grandma still talks about the ricotta guy she would go to on Arthur Avenue,” Mark says, referring to an Italian-American stretch of the Bronx.

And yes, they’re still in touch with old Sal, their business’s namesake. “He’s so psyched,” Devine says, laughing. “He thinks we’re absolutely crazy.”