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Italian Cheese: Pride & Protection

Slices of juicy tomato, creamy mozzarella, and fresh basil layered together and drizzled with olive oil and cracked black pepper

From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a class of vino and mangiare!

It’s no secret that the Italian people are proud. We’ve built empires, revolutionized culture and thought, and created some of the finest products this world has ever seen. But on the home front, there are few things we’re more proud of than our cuisine.

Only a few weeks after I was born, my mamma carried me me in a pouch through the supermarket, to the deli, the bakery, and the cheese counter, exposing me to all the different sights and smells of the culinary world. At four months old, my favorite food was mashed up meatballs and some gooey melted mozzarella on top–probably something you shouldn’t feed your baby, but I digress. When I was three, mamma taught me how to boil pasta. As Italians, we grow up around food. We learn the tastes and smells of cheese almost from day one. They’re carved into our nostrils and our tastebuds, and no matter what wonderful things we sample during our lifetime, the dishes and delicacies of our heritage always comes first.

Cheese, at the heart of our cuisine, is the essence of our national pride. Our Roman ancestors lay claim to the perfection of cheese as the first to age it and develop ripening techniques that would positively augment the flavor. They took cheesemaking with them as the Roman Empire expanded to cover the rest of Europe, passing on their knowledge to the conquered peoples of Gaul (take that, French). The Romans also were the first to export cheese to other Mediterranean countries. Today, Italy and its varieties of cheese corner the global market; mozzarella–both imported and American-made (from the Italian technique)–comprises over 40 percent of the United States’ total cheese consumption. Basically, Italian cheese ruled the world–and still does.

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Italian cheese shops are treasure troves, with wheels stacked high to the ceiling and hunks hung so close you can barely see where you’re going. — Photo Credit: Andrew Crump via Flickr

Italy lays claim to over 450 varieties of cheese spanning almost 2,000 years. Our culinary pride and joy also comes from a load of different animals and is often distinguished–quite proudly–by region. Here’s the small sampling of Italian staple varieties that we’ll cover in this series:

  • Parmigiano Reggiano: The “king” of Italian cheeses, this sharp, hard slice of heaven is talked about everywhere–in our literature, art, films, and music. It’s also the base for many of our most famous dishes. Who doesn’t love a good plate of chicken parmigiana?
  • Provolone: Hailing from the cheese-rich region of Lombardy, this cow’s milk cheese can vary in flavor from sharp to sweet, but is consistent in its somewhat soft, springy textured paste. Don’t eat the rind, though; it’s mostly wax.
  • Gorgonzola: Made from cow’s milk, it is perhaps the most famous Lombardy cheese, noted for its tangy flavor and distinct blue mold veins. This cheese dates as far back as the ninth century and can be either dolce (sweet) or picante (dry).
  • Pecorino: The original hard cheese, this rock-solid type changes based on geographic location and the animal’s milk from which it’s made. You can have your traditional Romano—from Rome—made from cow’s milk and salted to maximum sharpness. Or, you can go with Siciliano—from Sicily—where the bold sheep’s milk gives the cheese a bolder, spicier flavor than its northern counterparts.
  • Taleggio: This moody cheese is restricted not only by geography—made in the caves of Val Taleggio—but also by season, and it takes an artisan’s touch to make this product come even close to passable.
  • Mozzarella: My personal favorite, this cow or water buffalo‘s milk cheese is produced just hours after milking—it’s spun from strands, molded, and salted, then served now or saved for later. It is by far the easiest Italian cheese to make, but its mild flavor profile and soft, squishy texture also make it the most versatile.
  • Mascarpone: Another proud Lombardy cheese, this soft cow’s milk product spreads like butter and has a sweet, smooth, and creamy taste that falls halfway between chèvre and cream cheese. This is the ideal filling for any Italian dessert and can be used as a thickener for many sauces. Eat it quick, though! It’s fresh and will only last a few days without preservatives.
  • Ricotta: When all the other cheeses are formed, this sweet, creamy goodness is crafted from all the leftover whey. This cheese is the epitome of the European peasant tradition: “nothing goes to waste.”
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— Photo Credit: Caspar Diederik via Flickr

 As national treasures, some of these famous Italian cheeses are produced and enjoyed all over the boot and on the islands as well. However in some cases–like for Taleggio, certain types of pecorino, and yes, even Parmigiano–production not only brings pride to the nation, but to the cheese’s region as well. That’s why the European Union has granted forty-one major varieties protection under the DOP seal, with four more applications being considered. The Denominazione di Origine Protteta (Protected Designation of Origin) seal is like a geographic trademark for foodstuffs. When applied, the name of the place becomes the name of that variety of cheese, and it is illegal to use that same identifier on any other cheese. So, if you have a Parmigiano Reggiano that’s produced in a place like Venice (or with all of the US variants that are made in Wisconsin), you can’t actually call it “Parmigiano;” thus, the knock-off name “parmesan.”

It’s obvious, then, that cheese is no game in Italy; we take pride in what we make and curse the impostors who try to steal our good name. Still, we know that in most cases the original is still the best, so once you taste a piece of the real thing, it’s doubtful you’ll ever go back to an outsider’s knockoff. DOP protection is like icing on the cake–or, as the age-old Italian saying goes: come il cacio sui maccheroni.”

Photo Credit: FotoosVanRobin via Compfight cc

Nick D'Errico

Nick D'Errico was raised in an Italian family where he developed an appreciation for good food, a fear of flying bedroom slippers, and a love of cheese. He works as an editorial intern at Culture and currently studies writing and publishing (he wanted to be an engineer, but can't do math). In his spare time, he dons 40 lbs of padding and stands in front of rubber projectiles as a hockey goalie.

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