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What’s the Difference between Italian and American Provolone?

I recently traveled in Italy, where I rediscovered provolone cheese that was sharp and flavorful—nothing like what I buy in the supermarket in the States. Are they really the same cheese? Why do they taste so different?
This question is near and dear to my heart for two reasons: First, I moved to Florida from South Philly, where sharp provolone is a way of life and the sandwich shops wouldn’t dream of slapping a slice of fauxvolone on your Italian pork with broccoli rabe. Second, our Mazzaro’s customers come from far and wide and are always asking for the sharpest provolone. The cheese team and I are constantly tasting and evaluating provolones from different producers in all shapes, sizes, and ages. This is because the character varies from wheel to wheel (or in this case, from “torpedo”). But my favorites are generally the Guffanti three-year-old and the Auricchio Stravecchio.

The difference between sharp (“piccante”) and mild (“dolce”) provolone is a result of both the recipe and the amount of aging time. Although both provolone types are made from whole cow’s milk, piccante provolone is made with goat or lamb rennet and goat lipase, while dolce provolone is made with calf rennet and calf lipase. These are enzymes added to the milk at the beginning stages of the cheesemaking process—the rennet causes the coagulation, and the lipase is used to develop the flavor profile that the cheesemaker is after. The dolce provolone is aged only up to 4 months, while the piccante is aged 9 months to 3 years. At 18 months traditional producers such as Auricchio will refer to it as “stravecchio.” Also, many Italian-influenced cheese shops will hang the provolone and continue to age it “in house,” as we do at Mazzaro’s. In fact, we are aging a colossal 12-foot, 1,100-pound torpedo right now that came to us at about 2 years old. We will be aging it for an additional year.

Feature Photo Credit: studio_smile | Shutterstock

Jeffrey DiMaio

Jeffrey DiMaio, CCP, CSW is the manager at Mazzaro’s Italian Market, in St. Petersburg, Florida, and among the first group of individuals to pass the inaugural Certified Cheese Professional Exam, given last August. DiMaio holds equivalent certifications in wine and beer.