Italian cheese differs from region to region. That’s at least 20 different Italian cheeses, delicious formaggio, that characterize every part of Italy! Come on this cheesy journey with us.
President and statesman Charles de Gaulle wondered how it could ever be possible to govern a country –his France– with more cheeses than calendar days. The mystery of Italy’s proverbial governance difficulty is thus solved: it must be the cheese’s fault. Counting IGT, DOP, PAT and other EU quality appellations, we’re talking about 520 varieties of recognized Italian cheeses alone, to which hundreds more should be included if we consider all the so-called “fantasy” cheeses, i.e. those subject to the cheese maker’s free interpretation, milk type, technique and aging. Experts maintain that this grand total is close to 4,670.
If schedule and wallet hamper a journey to Italy to taste local food specialties in their various regional birthplaces, you can always travel across the 20 Italian regions on the symbolic cheese pilgrimage route logged below. Note however, that given the vastness of the Italian cheese scene, per-region product inclusion is vastly incomplete. Ready to travel through Italy via its representative northern, central and southern cheeses, region by region?
Italian cheese in Northern Italy
In the Alpine areas and in the Pianura Padana, local agricultural economy has always been represented by cow’s milk. That’s why in these regions butter is more widely used in the kitchen, as opposed to the warmer coastal conditions that allow the growth of olive trees, and thus a more olive oil-based cuisine. Let’s look at the cheese produced in this northern area.
Formadzo is an alpine cow’s milk cheese and one of the region’s specialties. The fragrant, semi-sweet, fresh, slightly salty mouthful tends to become more spicy with age. Fromadzo is also a great ingredient in the kitchen: grated on bread as a base for hearty vegetable soups, it also pairs well with asparagus, Savoy cabbage and spinach.
FRIULI VENEZIA GIULIA
Montasio changes as it ripens: milky in the “younger” version, flavours gradually verge towards more bold and spicy. The protagonist of frico, a regional dish, Montasio can also be grated on pasta, vegetables and soups. The more mature versions pair well with local grape varieties, such as Refosco dal Peduconcolo Rosso, Schioppettino or Picolit del Collio.
TRENTINO ALTO ADIGE/SOUTH TYROL
Graukäse was originally crafted by women in humble mountain creameries. Still made like back then, the cheese is added with spores that develop greyish-green moulds, hence the name of “grey cheese.” Graukäse is best enjoyed sliced and seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and fresh onions. It’s also a great filling for local knödel (type of broth-bathed bread ball similar to matzo).
Montèbore is the region’s least known cheese––as opposed to Robiola di Roccaverano, which is the area’s diva––and one on the verge of extinction. The cheese is produced in very small quantities. The unique wedding cake shape is inspired by the ancient bell tower of the tiny village that gives Montèbore its name. Sweet and milky, with a spicy and rustic note, it’s buttery on the palate, with a chestnut and grassy aftertaste.
Gorgonzola: as all other blue cheeses, you either love it, or hate it. The aromatic spectrum includes toasted nuts, liquorice, fermented fruit, black pepper and––don’t freak out––mould. Not a mistake, rather natural edible streaks that form during the cheese’s magical production. Let me explain. Pennicillium spores are added to the milk during production. When two month-old wheels are then pierced with special needles that let air in, the oxygen-friendly dormant spores wake up and create the beautiful and aromatic blue “veins” that characterise the cheese. The textures and flavours range from soft, dolce, and buttery, to salty and fudgy, all the way to downright piccante and crumbly in the more mature versions.
Prescinsêua gets its name from the Genoese word for rennet, presû. The texture is halfway between yogurt and ricotta, so basically a delightful curdled milk. Prescinsêua is used as the filling of focaccia al formaggio, as well as for torta pasqualina (Easter savoury pie), barbagiuai (fried pumpkin ravioli) and pansoti stuffed pasta. Due to its limited production and conservation difficulties, it can only be found in Liguria.
Asiago cheese is produced since the year 1000. Nutty toothsome, a little crumbly and redolent of toasted bread, it comes in two varieties: the aged Asiago d’Allevo (in turn divided into 3 aging levels Mezzano, Vecchio and Stravecchio), and the fresher Asiago Pressato.
Parmigiano Reggiano is the cheese the French envy us the most. Nutty, grainy, crumbly and unique, Parmigiano is known (and copied) around the world, placed among Italy’s most versatile cheeses: chunks can be carved straight from the open wheel, grated on anything, or employed as an ingredient in many unique recipes.
Cheese in Central Italy
Mild climate and terrain, with abundance of rolling hills and lush pastures, shape the central regions of Italy as areas dominated by the production of sheep’s milk products, generically referred to as pecorini, from the word pecora, Italian for sheep.
Pecorino Toscano is the region’s most famous sheep’s milk cheese; the most famous Tuscan Pecorino is Pecorino delle Crete Senesi produced in the Siena province and named after its characteristic clayey soil. Savoury and pungent with age, the cheese pairs well with fresh fruit (juicy pears, in particular), or stuffed along with local cured meats in Tuscany’s typically salt-free bread.
Pecorino Romano is one of the world’s most ancient cheeses. Fed in one-ounce chunks as ration for Roman soldiers during the Imperial expansion, the recipe of this crumbly, salty, delicious sheep’s milk cheese was recorded by 1st century agronomists as the best protein source for the troops. Pecorino Romano is the savoury element and backbone of many regional pasta dishes like carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe.
Casciotta d’Urbino is spelled with an “s” (the generic term for similar wheels is caciotta) because of a typo the ministerial employee made while cataloguing the cheese in an official document. Today that distorted name gives strength to the uniqueness of the cheese produced exclusively in the province of Pesaro-Urbino. Excellent with the region’s fried and stuffed Ascolane olives, on the cheese platter it begs to be drizzled with honey, and pairs best with white wines like local Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.
Caciotta al Tartufo is a cheese belonging to the region’s ancient shepherding tradition. Mixed in the cheese are flecks of precious autumn black truffles, which lend the soft and springy cheese a sensational aromatic baggage and mild truffle flavours. The best way to enjoy it is stuffed in warm ciabatta or nibbled at the end of the meal, as dessert.
Formaggio di Stazzo is a typical (and almost extinct) cheese made with goat and sheep’s milk. The origins and history of this cheese are tightly bound to 19th century transhumance––moving of herds to high altitude pastures during summer––now no longer in practice. With the same methods of the past, the cheese is produced in stazzi, characteristic rural huts located at high altitude. Fully vegetarian cheese, Formaggio di Stazzo uses vegetal rennets to coagulate the milk: anything found along the way during the herd drive, such as fig milk or wild thistle.
Caciocavallo di Agnone is a semi-aged, spun curd cheese. Shaped like a gourd with a small head, its origins are so ancient that it’s commonly referred to as “archaeological cheese”. Deep yellow, crumbly and moist, the cheese is sharp and peppery on the palate, with a bold yet nutty, caramel aftertaste that’s both complex and harmonious.
Cheese in Southern Italy
The great invasions of Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks and other populations that shaped this large part of Italy culturally and socially, also greatly influenced local cuisine. Sheep are still prominently present, especially in the island of Sardinia, but cattle breeding has equal relevance in Southern agriculture, and thus in local cheese productions. In the Italian south the culture of “pasta filata” reigns supreme, that is spun and stretched curd cheeses, like mozzarella, burrata and caciocavallo.
Burrata is the sexiest cheese: a mozzarella pouch wrapped in visso leaves––a plant that grows in the local Murge hills––and which when sliced open spills its oozing sensuous filling of shredded mozzarella mixed with heavy cream. Given its nature, freshly made burrata should be eaten the same day it was made, in religious silence and with no other “distractions” on the plate.
Mozzarella di bufala, fresh snow-white balls of spun curd cheese typical of the province of Caserta and Salerno, don’t need much of an introduction. With twice the fat of cow’s milk, fresh mozzarella made from the milk of the water buffalo boasts a plump, bulging texture that weeps rich, sweet, grassy whey when sliced into. The pleasant sour cream twang of mozzarella undercuts the cheese’s pure, rich milky cream notes; which is why bubbles are such a great pairing.
Pecorino di Filiano is produced by very small creameries in the Potenza province, made with the milk of sheep that roam free in the region’s green pastures. It then ages three months in natural tufa caves. The texture is crumbly and spicy yet soluble, which is the palate’s way of asking for another mouthful.
Caciocavallo di Ciminà is among the region’s representative spun curd cheeses, and unique as it has two “heads”. The younger variety is enjoyed appeso that is, hung on a hook above embers, and sliced on bread as it melts––Calabrian raclette. The flavour of the more mature version acquires hints of mowed grass, yellow flowers and hazelnuts, hence best enjoyed as is, paired with fresh pears or tart apples. And robust red wines.
Fiore Sardo is a pecorino that to this day is still made by shepherds––just like in the late 18th century––by heating the fresh milk in cauldrons over burning firewood and aging the wheels in the same room. This lends the cheese a delightfully smoky character. The aroma is intense, while the palate enjoys all the sweetness typical of sheep’s milk pecorino. Pour a glass of Cannonau to complete the experience.
Ragusano is one of the region’s oldest cheeses. As the object of a flourishing trade beyond the borders of the Kingdom of Sicily since the 15th century, the spun curd cheese’s peculiar foot-long brick shape was most probably adopted for practical reasons: more closely stacked in the ships’ cargo. Made in countryside dairies outside of Ragusa and Siracusa, Ragusano cheese pairs best with local wines such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Etna Rosso and Nero d’Avola.
Are you packing your bags for the boot yet? Leave room for all that Italian cheese!