France is most famous for it, and the United States produces more of it, but nowhere on earth is cheese so integral to eating than in Italy. Think of classic French dishes and most have nothing to do with cheese. In Italy, however, it is perhaps the single most vital ingredient—take away cheese and you take away much of Italian cuisine. That is why visitors to Italy (or those who love Italian food at home) should learn a little bit about the nation’s stunning cheese scene.
The King of Cheeses
Any discussion of Italian cheese has to start with Parmigiano-Reggiano, so highly regarded in the dairy world its nickname—acknowledged even by its respectful competitors—is “The King of Cheeses.” Benedictine Monks in the twin cities of Parma and Reggio, in Emilia-Romagna, invented the cheese about 900 years ago, and it is still made in almost identical fashion, one of the most strictly regulated foodstuffs on earth. It can only be made from the milk of local cows that are all numbered and tracked, which can only eat naturally occurring grasses and flowers, which cannot be chemically fertilized or use pesticides. The cows cannot be given supplements, antibiotics, steroids or bovine growth hormones, resulting in the purest milk possible. By law, cheesemaking must begin within two hours of the morning milking, so it is also ultra-fresh. Every step, from temperatures to the length of aging to the size of the cheese wheels (86 pounds!), is strictly enforced, and the only permitted ingredients besides pure fresh milk are salt and rennet. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made with a devotion that seeks nothing less than perfection.
Most cheese in the world is sold and eaten almost immediately, but to become Parmigiano-Reggiano, a minimum 12 months aging is required, and the average is 20-24 months. It comes in three grades: Regular, Vecchio (“old,” 18 months minimum) and Stravecchio (“extra old,” 20-24 months). Finally, before any grade can be applied and the cheese sold, an impartial expert taster must personally inspect it, and about 92% passes. It is one of just a handful of foods worldwide that requires such quality inspection, and the point of all this is to ensure both reliable excellence and consistency, and while other cheeses can be falsely labeled parmesan or similar names in the US, only the real thing can be sold as Parmesan, Parmigiana, or Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy, and it is worth trying— at every opportunity.
While Parmigiano-Reggiano belongs to a family broadly known as “hard grating cheeses,” it is not supposed to be truly hard (this means it is dried out) and is for eating first and grating second. The traditional way to enjoy it, which needs to be experienced by every visitor to Italy, is broken into chunks the size of small strawberries and eaten straight, or better yet, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, and often accompanied by cured meats or salami. Similar style Italian cheeses include Grana Padano and Pecorino, but while also excellent, these are more for grating than eating straight.
The King of Cheeses is ubiquitous and widely available across Italy, but this is not the case for most Italian cheeses, as the nation is fiercely territorial and regional about its foods. Many great Italian cheeses can only be easily enjoyed in their home region, which we will tackle from North to South, the perfect accompaniment to any foodie’s trip to Italy.
The three “corner” provinces bordering Croatia and Austria are mountainous and most famously produce Asiago, a cow’s milk cheese that is aged between 2-9 months. In general, it is creamy, mild, and unassuming, a top choice for antipasti platters, snacking and in sandwiches, and only in its oldest (Vecchio) form does it take on nutty complexity and become a cheese lover’s cheese. A similar option from this region is Piave.
Also mountainous, this part of Italy is influenced by its long physical and cultural connections to France and Switzerland and is a cheesemaking paradise. Cheeses here are an important complement to the region’s two famous crops: the world’s greatest truffles and Italy’s finest wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. The most famous homegrown cheese is Fontina, an alpine-style cheese in the Gruyere or Comte family, and especially prized is Fontina Val d’Aosta, made within hours of milking and only from a particular breed of cow. It is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese aged 3-12 months, sweet, rich, fatty, and creamy, exceptional for melting and used this way in fonduta, Italy’s take on fondue, usually served with shaved truffles.
Less well-known but even more beloved locally is Robiola, really a family of young cheeses. In some parts of the region, it is consumed just days old and has no rind, in others, it has a brie-like white rind. It is often made just from cow’s milk, but in many parts of Piemonte, they blend in some goat or sheep’s milk or both. It can be sold in rounds or cylindrical logs and is generally mild, but aged just enough to acquire a slightly sour signature flavor, with a consistency that ranges from that of chevre to that of brie or camembert.
Between Piemonte and Alto Adige in the center of Italy’s Northern border with Switzerland, Lombardy is home to Milan, the biggest city in Northern Italy, and famous for its risotto, polenta, and fried cutlets. It also makes three remarkable kinds of cheese. Gorgonzola is far and away Italy’s most famous blue, a cow’s milk cheese that is creamier and less pungent than many other blues, but also distinctly garlicky and peppery. Taleggio is a stinky washed rind cow’s milk cheese in the family of France’s famous Epoisses, but the taste is not as strong as the smell. Sticky, creamy, and salty, it is eaten on its own by cheese lovers, or used in myriad regional dishes: sliced over hot polenta to melt, stirred into risotto, or used as a stuffing for filled pasta.
Mascarpone is a spreadable triple cream product sort of between cheese and butter, which is uniquely used in both sweet and savory capacities, as a filling for dessert cannoli and layered in tiramisu, or used to add creamy richness to polenta and risotto. Mascarpone and gorgonzola are sometimes layered, cake-style, and sold as wedges of a hybrid “torte” cheese, which is delicious and unique.
Emilia Romagna is the dividing line between Northern and Central Italy, and immediately south lies Tuscany, Italy’s most popular food, wine, and tourism region. There are many excellent cheeses made here, most famously Pecorino Toscano, which in turn has dozens of sub-regional and flavor-infused variants, most famously Pecorino Pienza, made only in that one hill town. Pecorino is a family of semi-hard to hard aged sheep’s milk cheeses that are usually heated or pasteurized before being strained, pressed and put into molds. Pecorino Toscano is the mildest of the three major styles, and can be sold fresher and softer for eating (aged 20 days or more) or harder for grating (4 months). It comes in a medium-sized disc shape, and the exterior is generally yellow, though it is often covered in other substances that can greatly change the color and flavor, from powdered tomato to ash. The younger cheeses are popular on antipasto platters, often with honey, jam or figs.
Just south of Tuscany, this region is also famous for Pecorino, but in this case the better-known Pecorino-Romano, one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses, and to meet this demand, it is now also made in parts of Tuscany and across Sardinia. A hard sheep’s milk cheese more pungent than its Tuscan counterpart, it is mainly for grating as an indispensable ingredient in such famous dishes as pasta all’amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara.
Southern Mainland Italy
The regions of Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, and Calabria have a common cheesemaking heritage owing to their hot, arid climates, and are popular spots for raising sheep. This results in the third major category of Pecorino, a sheep’s milk take that is eaten young and fresh, but also a heavily salted and aged version used for grating. Another Southern specialty, provolone is perhaps more famous in the US than Italy, though the versions sold in North America bear only a passing resemblance to this pulled cow’s milk cheese that is salted and aged, and then sliced, often for sandwiches. It is rather innocuous on its own.
That is not the case for the lord of Southern Italian cheese, mozzarella di Bufala, made from the milk of water buffalo and one of the world’s most prized cheeses. It is fresh mozzarella on steroids, rich, creamy, delicious and the ultimate pizza cheese, though it is great on its own, most famously served as a Caprese salad with sliced tomato, fresh basil leaves, and extra virgin olive oil.
A stunning near relative is burrata, a specialty of Puglia, perhaps the one cheese most important to try in Italy. Though it has recently gained worldwide popularity and is increasingly available elsewhere and frequently seen on top restaurant menus in North America, it is often made industrially with shortcuts and just is never as good as at the source. It is a cow’s milk mozzarella made in a round ball with added fresh cream, so that when you cut through the soft cheese exterior the liquidy inside explodes and oozes out. The traditional way to enjoy this is to put the whole ball in a bowl, cut a cross shape in the top, pour olive oil over it, and spread the results onto bread – it is fantastic.
Sicily & Sardinia
Fiore Sardo is Sardinia’s most famous cheese, and widely counterfeited or exploited elsewhere, even in Italy, so try the real thing here. It is an ancient cheese made forever entirely by hand in the most primal way, from unpasteurized and uncooked sheep’s milk molded into squat barrel shapes that are then rubbed with olive oil. Best eaten young and soft, it is delicate, fragrant and delicious. Sicily’s top offering is Ricotta Salata, a firm, crumbly cheese very different from the soupy fresh ricotta most people know, more akin to feta, salted but not salty, and very versatile: it can be eaten in cubes on its own and is often added to salads or pasta.