Even though Italy is a pretty small place, its regions are quite different from one another. And cheese (‘formaggio ‘, in Italian) is one of the products that changes the most across the territories. Since the area of origin is a big part of what defines each cheese’s properties, many Italian cheeses have a protected denomination under European Union law (PDO – “Protected Designation of Origin”, or DOP – “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” in Italian). For a cheese to be labelled as PDO, every step of its production needs to happen in a specified geographic area: from local cows eating local hay, through production happening entirely in local facilities, to aging (or, for fresh cheeses, just packing) occurring rigorously in place.
Since Italian cheese names are so representative, in Italy they are never used as adjectives. For instance, you just say Mozzarella , not formaggio Mozzarella. And this even when the cheese name is indeed an adjective (for instance in the case of Parmesan which means ‘from the city of Parma’ – in Italian you just say Parmigiano , in English Parmesan cheese is instead more common). It has to be noted, however, that the name alone doesn’t guarantee the origin. For instance, “Mozzarella” isn’t a PDO cheese per se, while Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is (http://www.mozzarelladop.it/).
Specialized cheese stores in North America can provide a good sampling of the most important cheeses found all around Italy. However, even the best stores are incapable of handling fresh cheeses (some need to be consumed within 3-4 days from their preparation), and locally made equivalents are sometimes sold instead (although generally they don’t compare with the originals).
Cheese is considered very highly in Italy. Italians are very proud of and take their cheeses very seriously. They use them in their cuisine, but mostly eat them on their own, just with some bread or accompanied by fruit (pears, grapes), by compotes (figs), or honeys. All aged cheeses go very well with wine. Often, cheese is a course on its own (served at the end of the meal, before fruit or dessert). Eating Italian cheese is a true multi-sensorial experience, from the look, to the aroma, to the deeply multi-faced flavor. And, with the many varieties found from North to South, cheese is also a fascinating journey, both geographically and historically.
Formaggi a Pasta Cruda (Uncooked Cheeses)
Fast ripening (less than 30 days):
- Caciotta (e.g. Caciotta Toscana DOP) –usually a blend of ewe (70%) and cow (30%)– traditional creamy farmhouse cheese.
- Mascarpone –cow– one of the main ingredients of Tiramisù , also used in other preparations as an alternative to heavy cream or butter.
- Stracchino –cow– gets its name from the word ‘tired’ (in Lombard dialect: stracco), referring to the fact that used to be made from the milk of cows who were tired because of the transhumance to the valley after the alpine summer.
- Caprino –goat– an aged version also exists.
Medium ripening (1-6 months):
- Bel Paese (trade mark) –cow-.
- Taleggio (PDO, Taleggio Valley, Lombardy) –cow– [pronounced “ta’leddʒo”, not “ta’lejeeo”!] when very young, tastes similar to Bel Paese.
- Gorgonzola (PDO, Lombardy) –normally, cow– soft and creamy if is less than 2 months aged, crumbly and spicy-hot when aged for longer.
Formaggi a Pasta Semicotta (Semi-cooked Cheeses)
Medium ripening (1-6 months):
- Fontina (PDO, Aosta Valley) –cow– soft when younger, harder and more pungent when aged. Differs from Danish fontina which has a red wax rind.
- Asiago (PDO, Veneto region) –cow– great on its own as table cheese, can be used on pasta (grated or in slivers).
- Montasio (PDO, Friuli and Veneto regions) –cow– also consumed on its own, or added as an ingredient to several dishes.
- Piave (trade mark, Veneto region) –cow– mostly a table cheese, three variety are produced: mezzano (medium aged), vecchio (old), and stravecchio (extra-old).
Formaggi a Pasta Cotta (Cooked Cheeses)
Slow ripening (more than 9 months):
- Grana Padano (PDO, Northen Italy) –cow– considered inferior than Parmigiano Reggiano because aged less (9 months minimum) and produced with less strict quality regulations.
- Parmigiano Reggiano (PDO, Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Mantua) –cow-, one of the most representative Italian cheeses in the world – its origins can be traced back to the middle ages and the recipe hasn’t changed substantially (this cheese is aged at least 12 months and up to 30). Its bad North American imitations are called Parmesan. It’s eaten on its own or used as a complement to hundreds of recipes, most pastas and risottos.
- Aged Pecorino – (4 varieties of PDO: Sardo, Romano, Toscano, Siciliano from the corresponding regions) –sheep– a mildly aged variety also exists.
Formaggi a Pasta Filata (Spun Paste Cheeses)
- Mozzarella –cow, water buffalo– can be made of cow milk, but the one made of water buffalo milk is more renowned and “Mozzarella di Bufala Campana” is PDO. Small sized mozzarellas, usually with high water content are called bocconcini. Similar products are: ‘fior di latte‘, also PDO, and Treccia.
- Scamorza (from the Naples area, more info here) –cow– both smoked and mild varieties are used for instance on pizza and with pasta.
- Burrata (also from Southern Italy) –cow or water buffalo- mozzarella on the outside and cream plus mozzarella on the inside. Eaten as is at room temperature is a true delicacy.
Medium ripening (1 month):
- Caciocavallo (Southern Italy, e.g. PDO Caciocavallo Silano) –sheep, cow– a smoked variety also exists.
- Provolone (e.g. PDO “Provolone Val Padana”) –cow– [pronounced provolone-eh!] originated in the South, but is now produced mostly in Northern Italy.
One characteristic of Italian cheeses that definitely stands out in North America is that they often have some kind of moldy rinds. In general the rinds are not meant to be eaten (with a few exceptions, e.g. scamorza and provola have edible rinds), but they are essential for the aging process. Italian stores, whenever possible, try to keep the cheese wheels whole and only slice them to order (this is especially true for fresh or medium ripened cheese; aged cheese gets more “stable” and better maintains its properties when stored).
Even though Italy is a big producer of cheese, a few foreign brands managed to make their way into the Italian cheese market, with moderate success. For instance, the American Kraft introduced a pre-packed form of cream cheese (Philadelphia, sold in Italy since 1971), a type of cottage cheese (called Jocca, created in 1975), and a kind of processed cheese slices called “Sottilette” (Italian for “thins”). It has to be noted that the words “cottage cheese” and “cream cheese” don’t even exist in Italian, let alone “processed cheese” – these products are exclusively known by their brand names (to Kraft’s advantage).