Malfatti's flavour is incredibly delicate, the texture soft, with all the comfort of eating baby food, thanks to the ricotta. Not truly a cheese, ricotta is a by-product of the cheese-making process: whey that has been cooked and drained. So, you find buffalo ricotta in Campania and Puglia (very rich, creamy and wet); sheep’s milk in the far south, the islands, Tuscany and Piedmont (my favourite, creamy and farmyardy); and cow’s milk, the commonest everywhere. As by-products go, this is might be the very best. There are many versions of malfatti, to the point that each family has its own recipe - we religiously make ours with spinach in the dough and sage and butter as a dressing. 

Serves 4–5 as a starter, 2 as a main 


250g fresh spinach

250g ricotta (sheep’s milk is best) 50g Parmesan, freshly grated, plus plenty extra to serve

1 large egg 

40g plain (or Italian 00) flour, plus plenty extra for rolling Nutmeg (a few grates)

24 sage leaves

75g butter



Boil the spinach in well-salted water until tender, refresh it under cool running water and squeeze as dry as you can. Chop it very finely with a knife and mix with the ricotta, Parmesan, egg and flour to make a very soft dough. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper, but not a heavy hand – the flavours are very subtle, and so too should be the salt.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil (the spinach water is fine if you still have it). Drop a walnut-sized lump of dough in a bed of flour and roll it into a rough ball: it will be too soft to make a perfect sphere, but that is why the dumplings are called malfatti – ‘badly formed’. Cook it in the water to see if it holds together. If not, add a bit more flour to the mixture and test again. Once the dough is just (but only just) firm enough to withstand cooking, roll the remainder into about a dozen golf balls, again coating them in plenty of flour.

Simmer for 7–8 minutes for a slightly oozing middle, counting from when they rise to the surface. While they are cooking, fry the sage in the butter until the leaves are crisp and the butter hazelnut brown and foaming. Drain the malfatti, and serve with the butter and sage poured over, and a liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Variations A light tomato sauce works well if served under the malfatti rather than over them, and dotted with tiny knobs of butter. Or try draping the freshly cooked malfatti with thinly sliced lardo (cured pork back fat), still serving with butter, sage and grated Parmesan.