Smile like an Italian

Twenty ways they say cheese: dairy specialities from twenty Italian regions

If you think Italy produces a wide variety of wine, pasta and olive oil… you are forgetting cheese.
A country with an about 4600 Mi (7500 km) long coast (including islands) has also a mostly rural economy, with a lot of farmed areas all across the country, where dairy products are also made.

Be it an intense and creamy cheese from the Lombardy or a savory sheep cheese from Sardinia, cheese plays a pivotal role in Italian regional gastronomy and culinary tradition, because each kind reflects particular local climate and habits.

Cattles are mainly breed in the northern regions, in mountainous areas of Alps (where goat breeds are also common), and by the Po valley, while in the central and southern regions breeds of sheeps and goats are far more common, and they almost are the unique kinds of breed on islands.

It’s surprising how cheese taste and consistency can vary from one cheese to another, if we considere that productive process is more or less the same for every kind of cheese.

Very roughly speaking, milk is heaten, than rennet is added to let it coagulate; later, the curd is broken up, cooked and filtered. The curd is then put into molds and salted – often it’s brined – to let it age without perishing, and finally left aging. The quality of the milk (that is, the breed of animals it is milked from, where they live and what they eat), the temperatures at which milk and curd are heaten and climatic conditions within cheese making steps take place are the main factors that determine such a considerable difference among various cheese kinds.

Here is an overview on twenty representative Italian cheeses, one for each of the country’s region, keeping in mind they are not the only one produced there.

Fontina from Aosta Valley

The, smallest, less populated and “Frenchiest” of Italian regions has a mountainous territory in which cheese making is a centuries old tradition. World-famous local cheese Fontina, indeed, is reported to be produced since the XIII century.
Its penetrant smell must not mislead: once in mouth, Fontina reveals to have a soft, pretty sweet flavor.
It ages for at least three months in special rooms, where temperature and humidity are constant (respectively around 10°C/50°F and 90%). Its typical aroma is given by the milk of local breed of cattles, called Valdostan – these cows graze in the Alps and are fed with fresh provender and local hay.

Castelmagno from Piedmont

Piedmont is the home of Italian cheese, probably because of its proximity and affinity to France (indeed, it is also the region some of the best Italian wines come from).
Here they produce many DOP (meaning Denominazione di Origine Protetta – Protected Designation of Origin – a sort of “appellation” given to food, like those given to wine), renowned cheeses and a plethora of local cheeses that scarcely go beyond the province of origin, like the rare Escarun from Cuneo, a sheep milk cheese (often made with cattle milk, too) only a few Italians know about.

One of the most famous DOP cheeses from Piedmont is Castelmagno, from the name of the small town it originates from. According to its production guidelines, it can only be produced in the municipalities of Castelmagno, Monterosso, Pradleves and Grana (nothing to do with Grana Padano cheese), in the province of Cuneo.

It can also boast a very ancient “recipe”, because it is produced since the XIII century, too. It is made by milk of cattles of Piedmontese breed, but the addition of a little amount of goat milk is allowed. It is classified as a cheese “a pasta rotta”, that means “of a broken paste”, because the curd is broken and pressed once more than usual during its making.

Castelmagno ages for at least two months and it soon gains a complex and savory taste, but gives it best if aged for a longer time. Long aged wheel of Castelmagno develop mold, so it turns to be a blue cheese. Blue Castelmagno is pretty rare and it’s hardly available outside of Piedmont.

Gorgonzola from Lombardy

Many good cheeses are also produced in Lombardy, but the huge popularity of one of them eclipses other, yet remarkable (like Crescenza, Grana Padano and Provolone, just to name the world famous only) ones: Gorgonzola, from the small town of Gorgonzola, in the province of Milan.

This blue cheese is so popular and so deep-rooted in northern Italy culinary tradition that production guidelines of Gorgonzola DOP allow its production far out of the area of origin, in the provinces of Bergamo, Brescia, Como, Cremona, Lecco, Lodi and Pavia, in addition to the province of Milan, in Lombardy, and in the Piedmontese provinces of Alessandria, Biella, Cuneo, Novara, Vercelli and Verbania.

It’s classified as a cheese “a pasta cruda”, that is “raw paste”, because the curd is not cooked once it is formed, but it’s directly placed in molds. It is also a blue cheese, because it is veined by molds.

It is made by adding spores of mold Penicillium to the unskimmed milk it is made with. Milk is heated at maximum 32°C (90°F) and rennet is added.
Then, the curd isn’t heated anymore, as said, is just filtered, placed in mold, brined and left aging. During aging, holes are made in the wheel, to let air pass through. Air allows molds to develop and form typical “stripes”.

This popular cheese of northern Italy once met one of the most popular food of the southern town of Naples and became a classical ingredient to top pizza, alone or among other ones (a famous pizza topping recipe is “quattro formaggi” and one if those four cheeses is usually Gorgonzola). Before, it was traditionally consumed with pasta or (mainly) polenta.

Despite this, Gorgonzola can be a refined cheese to be tasted alone or with honey and nuts.

Vezzena Trentino-Alto Adige

Trentino-Alto Adige is another mountainous region of northern Italy with a rich and various tradition in cheese making. Here they produce, for instance, a popular kind of grana cheese, called Trentingrana, with a very good reputation, and a dairy product it is quite hard to call cheese, because it’s not brined nor aged: sweet and fresh “Tosella”, you can only have there, because it goes bad very quickly (on the other hand, it is also quickly produced).

By the mountain pass of Vezzena, marking the border within the province of Trento and the one of Vicenza, in Veneto, they make a cheese with the same name.
It is produced with cattle semi-skimmed milk, according to the common method. What makes this cheese special is just the provender cows are fed with.

It ages for at least six months, up to twelve. Young Vezzena cheese has a fresh and lively taste and a light aroma that can resemble fresh garlic, while the long aged one is more complex and reveals the aroma of the grazing land grass.

Vezzena is best consumed alone, but according to local tradition, the hardest, leftover parts of the aged kind can be grated in vegetable soup, to make it tastier and more nourishing.

Montasio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Montasio is the plateau in the northern part of Friuli-Venezia Giulia from which this cheese comes from and where it is produced since the XIII century. Nowadays it is produced in the whole region and in some areas of region Veneto.

It is made from cattle milk coagulated with calf rennet, and according to the usual method.

After being brined, Montasio is left aging. According to how long it ages, Montasio can be classified as “fresco” (“fresh”, aged from two to five months), “mezzano” (“medium”, aged from five to ten months), “stagionato” (“aged”, from ten to eighteen months) and “stravecchio” (“very old”, with more than eighteen years of aging).

Montasio tastes great alone, but it is also the main ingredient of a typical local dish, called frico, a sort of savory pancake made of melted cheese, or melted cheese and mashed potatoes.

Asiago from Veneto

Although it is known for being the region of enchanting towns like Venice and Verona, not to mention smaller but still interesting ones, like Padua, Vicenza and Treviso, Veneto is a wide region with many rural and farmed areas, where cattle are extensively breed and many traditional kinds of cheese are produced.

The most famous one is probably Asiago DOP, name after the plateau with the same name it comes from (there also are a small town named Asiago in the area).

There are two kinds of Asiago DOP: “pressato” (pressed) and “d’allevo” (aged). The latter is produced according to a traditional method, the former is mechanically pressed in molds and can, therefore, be marketed after a shorter period of aging. It is interesting to know that this “modern” method started to be used around the Twenties. Until the First World War, Asiago cheese was only produced on the plateau with the same name according to the traditional method, but when a hige part of the population of the area moved away because of the war, it started to be produced elsewhere, according to methods used elsewhere, too.

Asiago cheese as we know it nowadays, that is made with cattle milk only became common around the XV century, when breeding farms of cattles became increasingly common. From the XI to the XV century, sheep breeding were more diffused and the cheese from Asiago was produced with sheep milk. That’s why in local dialect it is still sometimes called “pegorin” (from a local variation of “pecora”, the Italian word for “sheep”).

Parmigiano Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna

You say Emilia-Romagna and you say Parmigiano Reggiano, it’s set in stone. Okay, you also say Ferrari, Valentino Rossi, Lasagne,Tortellini and a plethora of cured meat (among which Mortadella is just the tip of the iceberg) invented to lead to perdition, but if it’s about cheese, you say Parmigiano Reggiano, no way out.

As it happens with all Italian quality cheeses, there’s nothing “special” in it: it is produced in the same way since the XI century, with no special ingredient or equipment. Secret ingredient in Parmigiano Reggiano is the climate of the area where it is produced, that makes the cattles eat a grass that “adds flavor” to their milk.

It is made by mixing unskimmed milk milked in the morning to the skimmed milk milked the night before and then going on with the “usual” cheesemaking method. Temperatures and cheese-maker’s experience are crucial to take the best from curd.

It must age for at least one year, but most refined Parmigiano Reggianos are usually aged for 24 months or more.
Obviously it is excellent alone, but it is so deeply rooted in Italian culinary tradition that it is used as an ingredient in almost every dish.

Giuncata from Ligury

Ligury is a small region by the sea in north-western Italy, a narrow stripe of land with almost no hinterland. Here are produced a few kinds of cheese, but they all are particular and can be found in Ligury only.

Prescinseua (pronounced [preʃin’sœa], many Italians also find it difficult to pronounce it), for instance, is a fresh dairy product obtained by letting milk go sour and turn thicker by adding rennet, and doing nothing else. You can only find prescinseua in Genoa and its surroundings, and it’s getting harder to find it there, too, nowadays.

In the area of Imperia and Savona, on the other hand, they produce, among others, a cheese from goat milk and they make it age for such a long time, that it becomes so hard it can be grated. It’s, thus, called “caprino da grattugia”, which actually means “goat’s cheese to be grated (literally “for grater”/“to be used on grater”, while “caprino” stems for the Italian word for goat, that is “capra”).

Maybe, the most typical cheese from Ligury is Genoese Giuncata. Its names comes from “giunco”, the Italian word for “reed”, because they traditionally use baskets made of reeds as molds.

It is made by adding rennet to cooled boiled sheep milk. It comes out to be soft, fresh, with a sweet, delicate taste.

Pecorino from Tuscany

In Tuscany a wide variety of pecorino cheese is produced. Pecorino Toscano obtained the DOP appelation and must be produced according to specific production guidelines; pecorino senese is produced in the area of Siena and is particularly sweet when not aged too long; pecorino di Pienza (again from the province of Siena) is the trend of the moment because of its peculiar aging in barrique barrels… though, most particular one is probably the less known pecorino pistoiese, from the hilly area around the underestimated town of Pistoia, in the northern part of Tuscany.

Pecorino pistoiese is so special because it is made from the milk of Massese breed of sheep. These black sheeps are breeded being left grazing in the countryside, so that they can eat a variety of grass and aromatic herbs, so that their milk is enriched with these flavors.
The longer it is aged, the strongest its aroma and taste become, but it is always surprisingly complex and fine.

Caciotta al tartufo from Umbria

This is probably one of the most recent dairy specialities of Italy, because this truffle-flavored Caciotta (that’s the meaning of its name) was first produced in the Sixties, that is in a period of economical growing, during which the market of luxury food was developing and local delicacies started be appreciated and promoted in the whole country.

Its productive process is not different from the one of other traditional cheeses, except the fact that grated black truffle from Norcia is added to the broken curd. Usually the amount of added grated truffle correspond to the 10% of the weight of the curd. Curd is then put in molds, simmered to remove whey possibly remained and brined. Then, Caciotta briefly ages, usually for two to four weeks.

It better reveals its intense and complex flavor if tasted alone at room temperature, but it is commonly used to dress pasta or polenta.

Ambra di Talamello from Marche

The name of this cheese comes from the color of its surface once it’s aged, and it was given to this cheese from Italian contemporary poet Tonino Guerra.

It is made from cattle and/or sheep milk according to the usual method of cheese making: milk is heaten and rennet is added; then the curd is broken and heat again, drained from whey, placed into small molds and brined. Then it left aging in deep pits, where it is lowered with ropes. It it is left there for at least three months, from the end of August to November; when it’s taken back, it has delveloped intense flavors of mushrooms and truffles.

It has a rich taste, that can sometimes be spicy and pungent.

Talamello is nowadays a municipality in the southern region of Emilia-Romagna, but it belonged to region Marche until 2009. That’s why Ambra di Talamello is considered a traditional cheese from Marche, even if the small town after which is named belongs, at the present time, to another region.

Pecorino di Farindola from Abruzzo

Farindola is a small town in the province of Pescara, located in the National Park of Gran Sasso, at an elevation of 1,740 ft (530 m), where they produce a pecorino cheese which is almost unique.

Cheese from sheep milk is produced all over Italy with great results and basically with few variation. Speaking generally, differences are given by temperatures at which production steps take place and the quality of milk used.

Rennet usually comes from veals, seldom from cattles. In southern regions, they sometimes prefer to use rennet from lambs, because it gives cheese a more intense taste.

Rennet used to make Pecorino di Farindola comes from pigs, which gaves this cheese a distinctive taste.
In addition to that, milk used to make this variety of pecorino cheese is the one of the Pagliarola Appenninca breed of sheeps, which is fed on grazing land.
In the end, it is traditionally produced by women only.

Scamorza from Molise

Scamorza is a cheese of the “pasta filata” kind, like mozzarella and caciocavallo. The meaning and the origin of this word is not ascertained, but in all likelyhood it is a variation of “scamozza”, deriving from “capomozzo”, meaning “cut head”. Actually, scamorza doesn’t come in wheels, but in pear-shaped pieces that can resemble a head. Moreover, it is left aging hanging from the ceiling on a rope.

Scamorza Molisana is made from the milk of the breed of cattle Bruna Alpina.

The curd is worked in stripes by adding hot water, then this sort of cheesy paste is cut by hand and brined.
Scamorza can also be smoked y burning aromatic woods.

It is traditionally consumed as an ingredient of baked foods, such as pizza, vegetable pies, focaccia or pasta pies, and even as a substitute of fresh mozzarella in the recipe of “melanzane alla parmigiana”, because it is tasty without being too savory, and because it’s also much drier than mozzarella, so it melts without damping foods.

Ricotta Romana from Lazio

According to Italian law and language, Ricotta can’t be said to be a cheese, because it is not a product obtained by working milk. It is a dairy product, because it’s a food that couldn’t be produced without milk, but that actually comes from workinf whey.

Ricotta is made from whey drained out of pecorino productive process, which is heated (cooked) for a second time. The word “ricotta” actually means “cooked once again”. At the temperature of about 90°C (194°F), albumin contained in whey coagulates forming flakes that surface in the whey. Flakes are drained out and put into small baskets, where they get compact.
Ricotta Romana is than salted by hand for 90 days and marketed fresh. It has a sweet, delicate, but structured taste, thanks to what sheeps ate: Ricotta Romana DOP can be made from the whey drained from Pecorino Romano DOP productive process only. According to its production guidelines, it can be produced only by milk milked from pasture sheeps only, fed with grass grown on grazing land.

Mozzarella di Bufala from Campania

As it happens in Lombardy with Gorgonzola, they produce some remarkable cheeses in Campania, but they are eclipsed by Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP.
Its name perfectly explain what it is. It is a mozzarella cheese made from the milk of local water buffalo.

Mozzarella is a cheese “a pasta filata”, that can be roughly translated into “spinned paste”; hot boiling water is added to the curd, this making the casein become ductile, so that can it be stretched in long stripes, as if they were threads spinned out of a spindle.

These filaments are folded many times and eventually they are cut off in small portions by hand. The italian verb for “to cut off” is “mozzare”, and that’s where mozzarella cheese (that can also be made with cow milk, according to the same process) takes its name.

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP is known to be used to top pizza following to the authentic Neapolitan style, but it’s better to have it alone, without baking it, to better appreciate its freshness and sweet milky taste.

Burrata from Apulia

One of the most representative cheeses from Apulia is a rather modern invention. Burrata, indeed, was first made in Andria in the Thirties.

It consists of a sort of bag of “pasta filata” (the kind of cheese pasta mozzarella is made of) filled with small pieces of mozzarella and cream.

It is delicious, because it’s sweet, fresh and pleasantly moist. Unfortunately, it goes bad quickly and the best way to taste it is to have it on site, even if exported burrata is an enjoyable product as well.

Cacioricotta from Basilicata

Cacioricotta is a cheese with a strange name, because it is produced according to a strange method only.

“Cacio” is a vernacular word mainly used in central and southern Italy to refer to a kind of cheese, that can actual vary from area to area (the word, indeed, stems from latin “caseus”, which is the root for English “chees”, German “käse”, Rumanian “cas” and Spanish “queso”; oddily, Italian language opted for “formaggio”, which has an Occitan origin).

Ricotta is a dairy product similar to cottage cheese, made by making whey coagulate.

Cacioricotta is a cheese produced by heating milk – which is sheep and goat milk – at 90°C (194°F). This allows albumin, a protein usually contained in whey and “lost” during cheese making, to remain in the curd once the rennet is added, instead of being drained away with whey.
Cacioricotta ages for about four month before being consumed, and develops a complex, not too savory, taste.

Giuncata from Calabria

In this southern region between Tyrrhenian and Ionian sea they also produce a cheese called Giuncata, because the molds it is put in traditionally are basket made of reeds, as it happens in Ligury.

This Giuncata is made with cattle milk, but they also produce a kind of Giuncata made of milk of local breed of domestic goat, called Nicastrese, which is rarer.
Once the curd is put in basket to let whey drain away, it is salted by hand and can then be marketed, because it doesn’t require aging.

Nowadays it is produced all year long, but it was traditionally made for Christmas.
It is very enjoyable alone, thanks to its fresh and delicate taste, but according to local culinary tradition it can be used as an ingredient in filling and sauces, both for savory and sweet dishes.

Piacentino from Sicily

This sunny island’s territory is mainly made of hills and rural areas, where sheeps and goats are breed more often than cows. Therefore, not only produced cheeses are often made from sheep and goat milk, but the rennet used to make the curd comes many times from lambs – and gives local cheeses a typical, intense taste.

Piacentino cheese is produced in the province of Enna and has nothing to do with the town of Piacenza, in Emilia-Romagna (being “piacentino” the Italian adjective to say “from Piacenza/related to Piacenza”). Its name stems, in all likelihood, from the verb “piacere”, meaning “to please” (or “to like”, according to the use): it is “the cheese that pleases everybody”, the one “people like the most”. Actually it is called “Piacintinu” in Sicily.
It’s not so common outside of its region of origin, but it’s so particular it deserves a few words.

It’s made of sheep milk and the curd is obtained by the addition of lamb or kid rennet. The milk, though, is previously spiced with saffron. The curd is then broken and worked with hot water; then, it’s drained and peppercorns are added. The curd is then placed in dedicated basket, pressed by hand, scalded in its whey and dry-salted. Eventually, it is left aging from six to sexteen months to produce “semistagionato” (semi-aged), while the “stagionato” (aged) one must be left aging from sixteen to twenty (or more) weeks.
Piacentino cheese has intense and persistent scent and taste, and can be even spicy, so it is often used to dress pasta and gnocchi

Sardinia

The “emerald island”’s economy owes much to sheep breeding. Even if Sardinia is world famous for its beautiful beaches on a caribbean-looking sea, there is a wide, wild countryside where sheeps are painfully breed.
From these sheeps, various kind of pecorino cheese are produced, all appreciated and renowned.

One of the most refined ones is Fiore Sardo (literally “Sardinian Flower”).
The curd of this cheese is not reheated once broken, that’s why it is classified as a cheese “a pasta cruda” (“raw paste”). Its peculiarity consists in being lightly smoked for a couple of weeks after being brined, before the proper aging begins. It ages from six to twelve months, and it comes out to be very complex, yet delicate, especially the one aged shorter.