A dinner that ends without cheese, is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.
There is no exact number. Italy churns, blends, pulls, stretches and ages milk into virtually thousands of different cheese varieties. Each region, city and hamlet, is home to ridiculous amounts of native formaggi.
If the topic of Italian cheese is still a mystery to you, allow me to guide you on a cheese tasting tour. Walk with me down the fragrant route of Italy’s most prominent cheeses.
So, uncork the wine and get the warm bread ready...
ALPINE REGIONS (Trentino Alto Adige, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia, Piemonte)Asiago is a cheese that according to different aging can assume diverse textures, from smooth for the fresh variety, to a crumbly consistency for the aged variation. Semi-sweet, nutty flavored cheeses like Asiago–which is similar to Swiss Emmental and French Comte–are produced from cows that graze on lush, mountain pastures. As a result, the cows produce a thick, rich milk that serves as the backbone for making these full-flavored cheeses. Asiago cheese also holds certification by a dedicated consortium, which ensures that the cheese is produced under certain guidelines in order for it to meet high quality standards. The aged version is often grated over salads, soups, pastas, and sauces; while the fresh Asiago cheese is sliced to prepare panini; with fresh fruit, bread and red wine, and it can also be melted on a variety of dishes. Asiago is an Italian kitchen must. Recommended wine: Bardolino.
Bitto is a wonderful Alpine cheese used in much of the cuisine of the high Valtellina mountains of Lombardy. On tasting a ten-year-matured sliver of Bitto cheese, the palate is surprised by its delicious flavor, which results in an explosion of taste. Bitto is made using cow's milk added to Orobic goat's milk, a breed risking extinction. The mixture is then poured into traditional copper molds shaped like an overturned bell. Bitto cheese represents, without any doubt, one of the symbols of the dairy industry in Lombardy. High elevation pasture lands, hand milking, no use of additives, preservatives and enzymes in the cattle feed, and 3-month rotational pasture cycles assure superior quality to the cheese and conservation of the environment and alpine biodiversity.
Castelmagno This sophisticated Protected Designation of Origin cheese is made from partially skimmed cow’s milk, with some added goat–or sheep’s milk, after which the evening milk mix is left to ripen overnight. The next day, the morning milk is added, which contributes to Castelmagno’s strong taste and unusual texture. This cheese usually has a cylindrical shape; its reddish-yellow, natural rind is crusty, with splotchy gray mildew. The cheese shapes are left to ripen in damp cellars and drying rooms, occasionally turned and washed to encourage the development of the natural micro-flora that contribute to the pungent, yeasty aroma. Blue molds, present in the cellars, sometimes penetrate the rind to form fine, blue streaks that impart a spicier flavor to the cheese. It is used as after-dinner cheese, occasionally paired with savory marmalades and chutneys like as red onion, or aromatic honeys.
Fontina A cheese that has been made in the Aosta Valley, in the Alps, since the 12th century. It is somewhat creamy and has a pale yellow interior with very small holes and a semi soft texture. Italian Fontina has a mild, somewhat nutty flavor, yet rich, herbaceous and fruity, with hints of honey. It melts lasciviously well. In fact its name derives from the French fondre, to melt. Fontina is the base for Fonduta, the Italian traditional cheese fondue dish, which is made with whipped Fontina added to eggs and milk. Fresh vegetables and toasted bread are dipped directly in the fonduta pot on the table, heated by small burner. The dipped foods are retrieved with long skewer forks and devoured in collective elation.
Gorgonzola is the world famous smelly Italian blue cheese, made from unskimmed cow’s milk. It can be buttery or firm, crumbly and quite salty, with a terrific bite from its marbled blue veining. It dates back to the early Middle Ages and many cheese makers around the world have attempted to imitate Gorgonzola, but have had little success, being unable to replicate the balance of molds found in ripening caves for Gorgonzola. It is frequently used in Italian cooking in many ways, my favorite is melted into risotto or polenta in the final stages of cooking.
Robiola is a sensational cheese. The taste and appearance of this versatile cheese varies depending upon where it was produced, ageing and refining method. Robiola di Roccaverano DOP/DOC for example, has no rind and a slightly straw-yellow color with a sweet, yielding taste. Robiola Lombarda has a thin, milky-white to pink rind and tends to be shaped like small rolls. The cream-colored Robiola underneath its bloomy rind has a smooth lushness to its full, tangy and mildly sour flavor, likely due to a high fat content. Its rind can be cut away, but is mild with no ammonia and adds a subtle crunch to the cheese. Robiola from the Piedmont area of Le Langhe is a fresh cheese, and is generally served as a table cheese, either alone or with bread and fruit. It has a tangy taste, pungent smell (resembling a mix between jasmine and gym socks) and if you can overcome the smell, the taste is amazing.
|Robiola delle Langhe|
Ubriaco is a bizarre looking hard cheese made from cow’s milk, whose appearance is far from appealing. But looks can be deceiving, as is the case with this “drunken” cheese. The young dipsomaniac dairy is initially soaked in wine, then covered with crushed grape skins left after pressing, and subsequently allowed to mature for 10 months. The cheese has a firm, crumbly yet open texture that is fairly wet and the taste has unexpected notes of pineapple.
Puzzone di Moena A delicious hard grain pressed formaggio obtained with raw skimmed cow’s milk, aged 4 to 8 months, with a humid crust, decisive flavor and a piercing smell. Its name in fact clearly describes its principal characteristic. The word puzza is Italian for “stink.” Puzzone is an augmentative, Big Stinker, essentially. Puzzone can easily be identified (even at a great distance) by its pungent emanation, and the greasy, brick red colored rind. The flavor is milder than its smell, still decidedly strong, with hints of hazelnuts.
|Puzzone di Moena|
NORTHERN LAKES, LAGOONS & LIDOS. (Liguria, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia)Sottocenere ai Tartufi The area of origin of this particular aged, ash coated semi-firm cheese is venerable Venice. The bizarre aging process involves a rub of ashes to convey subtle flavors into the cheese, with a variety of spices (cinnamon and nutmeg, among others) mixed with the ash. Flakes of truffles speckle the mellow yet aromatic creamy body.
Sottocenere makes a unique addition to a cheese board alongside honey and tangy marmalades. Otherwise you can grate it into vegetarian omelets, or stir into delicate pasta dishes, and smile.
Taleggio is a stinky soft cheese, whose crust is pinkish-gray and the paste is white, supple and fruity. As a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from the Valtaleggio area of Lombardy, it is characteristically aromatic yet mild in flavor and featuring tangy, meaty notes with a fruity finish. The texture of the cheese is moist and oozy with a very pleasant melt-in-your-mouth feel. The combination of the supple texture, pungent aroma, and buttery flavor has proven to be addictive especially when smeared on warm crusty bread. Taleggio pairs nicely with Nebbiolo wines, as well as a wide range of whites.
The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) took Taleggio before bedding his conquests on account of its reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. Taleggio is versatile, as it can be enjoyed at the end of the meal, diced in radicchio and arugula salads or softened over stir fried zucchini and sage.
CENTRAL REGIONS (Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Abruzzo, Lazio, Marche)Caprino A very fresh soft cream cheese traditionally made with whole pasteurized goat’s milk. The name derives from the Italian word for goat, capra. The two major styles of caprino are fresco (fresh) and stagionato (matured). Caprino cheese is delicious enjoyed for breakfast, folded in a mushroom omelet; as an appetizer, with the addition of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, or just crumbled over a well dressed mixed salad.
Formaggio di Fossa The humble origins of this cheese have in no way impaired its fortune and today, having shed its peasant clothes (but not the pungent odor), it hangs out mostly in high-level entourages and frequents only the most exclusive restaurants.
Bologna gourmand grocers contend for it. In Milano it constitutes a food legend. This Traditional Guaranteed Specialty is native to a small town called Sogliano al Rubicone in the Forlì-Cesena area of the Emilia Romagna region. This unique cheese is also produced in another small province town, Talamello in the Marche region.
Formaggio di Fossa is a stereotypical “mixed” cheese, made that is with equal parts of ewe’s milk and cow’s milk. The formaggio is then aged for three months in dark stone pits, the very fosse that grant the cheese its name.
|Formaggio di Fossa|
The four main oval pits of Sogliano are ancient 14th century granaries, carved 9 feet deep and 6 feet wide in natural volcanic limestone.
The cheese shapes, cloaked in white canvas sacs (usually old pillowcases) are buried in the pits in the last week of August and exhumed at the end of November. In Sogliano, the official established re-opening date of the fosse is November 24th, eve of the local Santa Caterina day.
|One of the Sogliano aging pits|
Mascarpone is a triple-cream cheese, or more accurately a lightly whipped cream, and not a cheese at all. It smells like milk and cream on a Sunday morning. This whitish to straw yellow, creamy, mild fresh cheese is compact, but supple and spreadable, and it is the main ingredient for tiramisù.
Parmigiano My absolute favorite food. Original of the Emilia Romagna region, this 18-month aged delicacy, whose texture is compact, velvety and melts in the mouth, reminds the lucky eater of life’s grandness with each bite. Italy’s most popular dairy product, Parmigiano defeats any French molded snob cheese with its simplicity and candor in an effortless battle. My grocer sells me large, grainy chunks of Parmigiano, chiseled from the shiny drum that carries its name emblazoned on the rind, on a weekly basis.
Perfect eaten alone, or with pears, walnuts, white grapes, figs, drizzled with honey, red onion chutney, or with a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena creamy reduction. Its flakes are ideal sprinkled on appetizers, pasta, salads and meat carpaccios. You’ll find Parmigiano mentioned ad nauseam in all my recipes.
I’ve always dreamed of doing a spoof of the popular Hollywood blockbuster American Beauty icon image, with me wallowing nude, in a sea of Parmigiano petals.
Pecorino This sheep’s milk cheese was first made roughly 2000 years ago in the countryside surrounding Rome. To make it, the cheese is curdled, salted and then pressed into molds, to which it sets. The pressing removes most of the moisture, making it very hard. Pecorino boasts a rich flavor that can enhance any. This cheese is great eaten alone sliced into small cubes, along side juicy slices of fresh pears; or grated onto pasta. Its distinctive strong, very salty taste makes it preferred for highly flavored pasta sauces, especially those of Roman origin, like Amatriciana. Pecorino is the worthy companion of fava beans in the Roman spingtime fave e pecorino combination and full-bodied reds.
There are a few varieties of this cheese, which differ slightly by region. The DOP varieties are the sharp Pecorino Romano; the milder Pecorino Sardo; Pecorino Toscano, the Tuscan relative of Pecorino Sardo; and Pecorino Siciliano, from Sicily all come in a subvariety of styles depending on how long they have been matured. Pecorino Romano is not called Romano because produced in and around Rome, but rather because it’s made following the production methods developed by the Ancient Romans. The more matured cheeses, referred to as stagionati, are harder and have a stronger, saltier taste. Some varieties may have spices included in the cheese. In Sardegna, the larvae of the cheese fly are intentionally introduced into the Pecorino Sardo to produce a local delicacy called Casu Marzu. Only the brave attempt it. You literally have to chase it across the table… because the live larvae virtually move the cheese!
Stracchino, Squacquerone and Crescenza all belong to the same cheese group. They are soft-ripened cow’s milk cheeses with no rind, produced in northern Italy. They are buttery with a rich, slightly tart flavor. These spreadable cheeses are eaten very young, and their soft, creamy texture and normally mild and delicate flavor make them very versatile and digestible. These are normally produced in a square shape, and wrapped in moist paper.
On the Adriatic coast, typical Piadina unleavened bread, daubed with Squacquerone is a mainstay of the local food industry. On the Ligurian riviera east of Genoa, Stracchino is used as the filling for Focaccia col Formaggio, one of man’s most wonderful inventions.
SOUTHERN REGIONS & ISLANDS (Molise, Basilicata, Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia)Burrata is a divinely decadent fresh cheese, made from mozzarella and heavy cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains both shredded mozzarella and cream, giving it a unique pulpy texture. It is usually served fresh, at room temperature. Cutting through a fresh new burrata and the witnessing the soft shredded pulp oozing out, is a truly mystic experience. The name burrata means “buttered” referring to the toothsome filling’s texture.
Caciocavallo is a gourd-shaped cheese that originates in southern Italy. It’s a traditional pasta filata (stretched curd) cheese made from cow’s milk. It is commonly tied at the thin end with a raffia cord to hang. The word cacio is slang for cheese, cavallo means “horse”, the name caciocavallo derives from the fact that the curd is left to dry by placing it “a cavallo,” i.e. straddling, upon a horizontal beam or branch. Smoked versions of caciocavallo are very popular as well.
Mozzarella is the generic term used for several kinds of fresh Italian cheeses that are made by spinning and then cutting the curd, hence the name’s root mozzare. The Italian verb mozzare stands for “to sever”. The different kinds of mozzarella available are: a) mozzarella di bufala, made from water buffalo milk, which in Europe is sold as mozzarella di bufala campana; b) mozzarella fior di latte, made from fresh pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’s milk; c) low-moisture mozzarella, which is made from whole or part skim milk, and widely used in the food service industry, and d) smoked mozzarella otherwise known as Provola Affumicata.
Mozzarella comes in all shapes and sizes, from bite-size cherry bocconcini, to the awesome 1-pound bowling ball size Aversana, or the delightful interlaced bufala “braid”. Mozzarella is sold swimming in a whey brine, it is soft and rubbery, and simply divine.
|Mozarella di Bufala|
Ragusano is a brine-salted, hard pasta filata cheese, and one of Italy’s favorites produced in Sicily. It comes in the shape of a brick and it is made from non-pasteurized cow’s milk. The curd is heated and stretched until it is rubbery. It is then pressed into rectangular molds and left to dry. Once salted and rubbed, the cheese is ready for refining. During this 6-month ageing and refining period, the hard cheese is regularly rubbed with a mixture of oil and vinegar.
Ricotta is a fresh cheese whose name literally translates “cooked again”. It is grainy and creamy white in appearance, slightly sweet in taste, and somewhat similar in texture to cottage cheese, though considerably lighter. Like many fresh cheeses, ricotta is highly perishable and smells horrid once gone off.
Ewe’s milk ricotta is a favorite component of many Italian desserts. In Italian households and dining establishments, ricotta is often beaten smooth and mixed with condiments, such as sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and occasionally chocolate shavings, and served as a delicate dessert. This basic combination (often in addition to candied citrus and pistachios) also features prominently as the filling of the crunchy tubular shell of the Sicilian cannoli, and layered with slices of sponge cake in Palermo’s typical cassata. Combined with eggs and cooked grains, then baked firm, ricotta is also a main ingredient in Napoli’s Pastiera, one of Italy’s most famous Easter desserts.
Ricotta Salata When fresh ewe’s milk ricotta goes through its natural aging process, it becomes a hard, pungent cheese, suitable for eating or grating. Its best friend is Pasta alla Norma, where it is profusely sprinkled over the savory spaghetti and its zingy eggplant and tomato sauce.
Fiore Sardo The rind is natural, golden-yellow to dark brown and has a sour, damp smell. The Sardinian “flower” is hard and grainy, and has a wonderfully rich flavor, with caramel sweetness, salty tang and a hint of fruit.
Once again–like I had to with my Salumi primer–I had to make a choice. A sad one, my cheese-loving friends will agree. But there are just too many Italian cheeses and too little cyberspace for this post. So please forgive me and keep in mind that what you have just read is an (incomplete) inventory listing of some of Italy’s best cheeses. Know that choosing one over the other has been a difficult task, and a huge sacrifice.