Italian Cheese - Cheese Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

The history of Italian Cheese began over 2,000 years ago during the era of the Roman Empire. As early as the first century AD, Romans invented cheese presses to press cheese curd. Romans were the first to experiment with aging cheese under different conditions in order to produce Italian Cheese with specific flavors, textures and aromas. Romans even created a separate cheese kitchen, called a caseale, in order to refine their Italian Cheese making expertise. In more populated areas, there were areas in towns that were dedicated to smoking home-made Italian Cheese. The Roman Empire continued to refine the cheese making process and dispersed and assimilated their Italian Cheese aging techniques throughout its empire across Europe.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the Italian Cheese making techniques they pioneered were largely abandoned, only to survive in isolated areas such as in the mountains or monasteries, where monks created monastery cheeses based on the Roman innovations. Individual Italian states developed their own identities and traditions which resulted in cheeses unique to each region of Italy. Local ingredients and customs would play a large role in the types of Italian Cheeses produced throughout the Italian peninsula.

There are hundreds of varieties of Italian Cheeses. Parmigiano Reggiano, Mozzarella and Provolone are just a few of the amazing types produced in regions ranging from Lombary in the north, through Tuscany down to Siciliy in the south. Quality is emphasized in regard to the production of Italian Cheeses as there are many conzorzios, or consortiums. These are quality control organizations created to protect and oversee production of protected Italian Cheese types in Italy. Many Italian Cheese types have been awarded PDO (protected designation of origin) status. PDO status establishes traditional methods for the production of an Italian Cheese and ensures that it is made with local ingredients within only proscribed regions of Italy.

Types of Italian Cheeses

Asiago: Asiago Cheese is a hard cow's milk product made in the Veneto region of Italy. Asiago is available in two very different formats: Asiago d'Allevo is a grainy, firm whole milk cheese that is sharp and nutty while Asiago Pressato, is a fresh, part-skim pasteurized milk Italian Cheese that is not nearly as hard and much milder than Asiago d'Allevo. Both Asiago types are Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Italian Cheeses in the European Union, requiring that Asiago be produced using specific methods only in its home region of Italy. Shaved or grated, Asiago d'Allevo is terrific in salads, while Asiago Pressato melts well, making it ideal for sauces or hot sandwiches.

Burrata: Burrata is a unique Italian Cheese made by creating a sack of fresh Mozzarella, filling it with either cream or butter, then tying off the sack to keep the filling in place. The cream filled variety is called Burrata alla Panna, where the cream is enhanced with the addition of cut pieces of fresh Mozzarella. The butter filled type is called Burrata Burro. In fact, the word Burrata means "buttered" in Italian, However the Alla Panna variety is much more popular in today's market than the buter-filled type of Burrata. Once Burrata is cut open, the sweet luscious cream filling oozes out to cover the plate, thus Burrata must be consumed in one sitting. Burrata was first made in the early 1900s in the Murgia area of the Apulia region, and by the 1950s it had gained popularity as a way for cheese factories throughout Italy to utilize their scraps of Mozzarella. This Italian Cheese is perfect when paired with crusty bread, sliced tomatoes and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Caciocavallo: Caciocavallo is a stretched cured Italian Cheese whose name probably (nobody truly knows the origin of the name) stems from "horse head" in Latin. Caciocavallo is an ancient Italian Cheese, having been referenced in texts as far back as 500 BC. This classic Italian Cheese gained prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries in southern Italy. Similar in concept to an aged Mozzarella, Caciocavallo's flavor and texture is similar to Provolone, making it an excellent cooking cheese. Caciocavallo when aged becomes sharp but remains creamy in the mouth. This flavorful Italian Cheese is best paired with salami, fruit and bread as part of an antipasto course.

Fontina This Italian Cheese is often called Fontina Val d'Asota or Fontina Valle d'Aosta, but its true name is simply Fontina, the latter part of the title paying homage to its region of production. Fontina is a medium bodied, slightly spicy, semi-soft cow's milk cheese from the Aosta Valley in the northwestern corner of Italy, just south of Switzerland. An Alpine cheese, Fontina is pale yellow in color with a natural orange-brown rind. This Italian Cheese is quite aromatic, and is notably only available as a raw milk cheeses. Fontina is an excellent melting cheese that makes a very flavorful pizza topping, and is also particularly delicious as a dessert cheese. Fontina was one of the first Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheeses in the European Union, which requires that this famous Italian Cheese be produced using specific methods in the Aosta Valley of Italy.

Grana Padano: Developed nearly 1,000 years ago by Cistercian monks, Grana Padano is one of the most popular cheeses of Italy. Grana Padano is a hard raw cow's milk Italian Cheese that has a robust, sweet flavor. Grana Padano is named for its grain-like crumbly texture as Grana comes from the word for "grainy" in Latin. Grana Padano is often compared to Parmigiano Reggiano, and in fact both of these Italian Cheese types are made from the same recipe. As Grana Padano is aged (up to 30 months) its flavor becomes more robust and complex. Grana Padano is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Italian Cheese which specifies that Grana Padano must be produced in Po Valley areas of the Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino or Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy.

Gorgonzola: This famous Italian Blue Cheese comes in two distinct varieties: Dolce (sweet and creamy) and Mountain (piquant and semi-soft). Both types are made from cow's milk exclusively in the Piedmont or Lombardy regions of Italy. Gorgonzola was named after the town of the same name and has been produced since the 9th century. Streaked with a specific blue-green mold called Penicillium Glaucum, Gorgonzola's paste is white to pale yellow in color. Mountain Gorgonzola's flavor falls somewhere between mild and sharp, whereas the Dolce variety is mellow and creamy. Since 1996, Gorgonzola has been a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Italian Cheese, requiring that Gorgonzola be produced using specific methods only in its home regions of Italy. Gorgonzola is superb in salads, as well being called for in many recipes for pasta, risotto and beef. Gorgonzola is also excellent in soups, sauces or dressings and adds a unique tang to desserts when paired with fresh fruit such as apples, grapes or pears.

Mascarpone: Mascarpone is a fresh milky-white Italian Cheese originally made in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Mascarpone is made from the cream of cow's milk without any cheese starter or rennet. This soft, spreadable and rich Italian Cheese is the star ingredient in tiramisu. Mascarpone is exceptional when served for dessert with fresh berries, and is also commonly used in Italy the same way we use butter - as a spread on toast or crackers.

Monte Veronese: This Italian Cheese from the mountains north of Verona is a semi-hard Italian Cheese made from whole cow's milk. Monte Veronese is white to pale yellow in color with tiny holes dispersed throughout. Monte Veronese has a familiar, milky-sweet flavor and a semi-soft texture. This Italian Cheese is another Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese.

Mozzarella di Bufala: Mozzarella di Bufala is a fresh drawn-curd Italian Cheese made from the milk of water buffalo. This legendary Italian Cheese is a true delicacy that has a rich, slightly sour flavor with a somewhat grassy aroma. Mozzarella di Bufala has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in the European Union which designates the methods and regions of production of Mozzarella di Bufala within Italy.

Parmigiano Reggiano: Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard, crumbly Italian Cheese made from raw cow's milk typically aged for 18 to 24 months. Parmigiano Reggiano is sweet and fruity with a hard dark yellow rind. This most famous Italian Cheese is named for the areas of its production in the Italian provinces of Parma, and Reggio Emilia. Parmigiano Reggiano is a protected designation of origin (PDO) cheese which under European Union law requires that the cheese be produced only in these provinces. Many cheeses that try to imitate Parmigiano Reggiano are typically called "Parmesan", or may also be called "hard Italian Cheese type". Often used as a grating cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is excellent in soup, salads, veal, chicken or pasta. However, this succulent Italian Cheese is equally at home as part of an antipasto course, chunked and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and paired with olives, Prosciutto di Parma and grissini.

Pecorino Toscano: Pecorino Toscano is a hard sheep's milk Italian Cheese from Tuscany, Italy. It is mild with hints of lemon when fresh, developing more boldness and a honey aftertaste when aged. Pecorino Toscano's name is derived from the word pecora, meaning "sheep" in Italian and Toscana, meaning "of Tuscany". Fresh Pecorino Toscano is matured for only 30 days and up to a year when sold as an aged Italian Cheese. Pecorino Toscano is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in the European Union which requires that this Italian Cheese be produced using specific methods and only in the Tuscany region of Italy.

Pecorino Romano: Pecorino Romano is a hard Italian Cheese made from 100% sheep's milk. Originating in ancient Roman times, Pecorino Romano is one of Italy's oldest cheeses. This crumbly Italian Cheese is saltier than other hard grating Italian Cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano. Pecorino Romano's sharpness depends on its maturity, getting bolder with age. Pecorino Romano Genuino is a name used when this Italian Cheese is made in Lazio, its originally zone of production. However, most Pecorino Romano today is made on the island of Sardinia. It is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in the European Union which requires that Pecorino Romano be produced using specific methods in defined of Italy. Pecorino Romano is an excellent grating cheese, especially when served with pasta, soups or salads but is perhaps too salty and overpowering to be enjoyed by most people as a table cheese.

Piave: This relative newcomer is a straw-yellow Italian Cheese made from cow's milk in the Piave River Valley of Veneto in northern Italy. Piave is made unique by that fact that its milk comes from two daily milkings, one of which is partially skimmed for cream. Medium-aged Piave, called Piave Mezzano, is aged for six months and has a buttery-sweet flavor with notes of hazelnut. Piave Vecchio, aged for one year, is still sweet but has an added sharpness and intensified flavor. With a texture often compared to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Piave Vecchio is an ideal table cheese and is equally wonderful shaved over a salad or polenta.

Provolone: Originally produced in southern Italy, Provolone is considered to be Italy's national cheese. Now made in the northern Piedmont and Lombardy regions of Italy, Provolone is a member of the same family of cheeses as mozzarella, called stretched curd cheeses. In its manufacture, the curd is stretched, then molding into the shape of a pear, ball or cylinder. Provolone is then hung and cave-aged for three to twelve months where it develops its rind and spicy character. Provolone is drier and sharper than mozzarella, making this Italian Cheese an excellent choice for sandwiches or for use as a table cheese.

Ricotta: Ricotta, meaning "recooked" in Italian, is a fresh, soft, spreadable Italian Cheese made from the second pressing of the whey. Creamy, mild and sweet, Ricotta is similar to cottage cheese, but lighter with more flavor. Ricotta is frequently used in lasagna and in desserts.

Ricotta Salata: Ricotta Salata is the result of pressing and aging fresh Ricotta. Ricotta Salata is pure white in color, rindless, and has a chalky, milky flavor. This traditional Italian Cheese is perfect for grating and is superb in pasta dishes and salads.

Taleggio: A member of the Stracchino family of cheeses, Taleggio is a soft, pungent cow's milk Italian Cheese produced in the Bergamo province of Italy. Taleggio has a buttery texture and fruity, slightly salty flavor with a craggy inedible rind. Enjoy Taleggio as a hors d'oeuvre with crusty Italian bread, or melt Taleggio into a main dish or on vegetables.

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