Hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, stinky cheese, melted, aged, I can eat cheese any way you slice it. And Italy has no shortage of delicious melt-in-your-mouth cheeses.
In fact, there are over 400 different types of cheeses in this country, and I’m determined to try every single last one of them. They’ve been churning milk into varieties of cheese since the 5th century. Italians don’t joke around when it comes to dairy. So, when I was tasked with ranking the cheeses of Italy, my first thought was, oh boy, I’m really gonna clog them arteries. Because you know, I’m a method writer. But my second thought was that I hope I don’t piss off any Italians with my (lack of) knowledge of cheese. After all, I did grow up eating Easy Cheese, you know, the gourmet snack from a spray can. So please take everything I say with a curd of milk.
After much thought and taste-testing, I think that the best way to rank the cheese is Senior Superlative style. Let’s dig in, and see how many different ways I can say “creamy” and “delicious.”
Best in Show: Parmesan (known as Parmigiano-Reggiano)
She’s familiar, friendly and everyone knows her name. She’s the salt of the earth.
Hailing from Parma and Reggio Emilia, Miss Parmesan is a household favorite and a restaurant staple. She’s a hard-aged cheese, never younger than 12 months. In fact, the older she is the sassier and tastier she becomes. Parmigiano’s sweet spot is when she’s aged about 26-30 months. She’s made from cow milk, and the cattle in this region have an essential diet that protects the flavors of the cheese.
True Parmesan is 100% natural, no enzymes, no additives. It’s a labor intensive cheese to master, and it cannot be produced outside of the Reggio Emilia zone, or it’s not an authentic Parmigiano. This cheese is diverse and pairs well with fruit, meat, pasta, soup, and traditional balsamic vinegar.
And while this is the type of cheese you want to take home to mom, she can be full of surprises.
The Favorite Cousin / Always the Runner-Up to Parmigiano: Grana Padano
While she’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Grana Padano isn’t bitter. She’s still sharp and crumbly but a little more mild than her cousin. This cheese is the closest it comes to Parmigiano, but she comes with less producing rules, so she is easier to make because to be an authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano, there are a plethora of regulations to uphold. No one can just slap that label on its packaging.
Tried and True: Pecorino Romano
In Italian, pecora means sheep, so you can imagine that pecorino is made from sheep’s milk. Pecorino Romano translates to “sheep of Rome,” so you know exactly where these sheep are farmed and what they’re eating.
This hard and granular cheese is salty with a slight tangy finish. She’s a table cheese that makes a helluva pasta topper. In fact, Pecorino Romano is often grated for this purpose.
Pecorino Romano is one of Italy’s oldest cheeses and the recipe apparently hasn’t changed since the Caesars ruled Rome, so you can imagine with thousands of years of perfecting this recipe, she’s going to be solid.
The Game Changer: Mozzarella di bufala
Mozzarella is a semi-soft cheese in southern Italy. This fresh cheese should be consumed within at least five days of production, but the fresher the better, so if possible try to eat it the same day it’s made. During the cheese-making process, Mozzarella becomes a stretchy texture after it’s heated. And when I say heated, I mean piping hot. I had a go at making some, and my hands were bright pink as I tried to take this cheese from stretchy goo to its famous circular shape. It’s much harder than it looks (especially if you have my hand-eye coordination skills) but it’s all worth it for that milky center. Honestly, I had never had a good piece of mozzarella until arriving in Italy, and it really changed my life. No, honestly, it did. I’ve had to buy new jeans. Mozzarella needs to take full responsibility for bringing me up a pant size.
One tidbit I learned about mozzarella is that the real deal isn’t kept in a fridge. If you’re at the grocery store, you don’t want the sealed packages in the refrigerated section. You want those mozz balls submerged in cool water. When it’s transported, it will be packaged in its own plastic bag (packaged similarly to goldfish at county fairs) keeping this cheese fresh and juicy. Mozzarella is sweet, succulent, and fatty. Once you have proper mozzarella, you’ll never buy the falsely packaged refrigerated kind again.
The Pizza Secret: Fior di Latte
Fior di Latte is similar to mozzarella di bufala except it’s made from cow’s milk. Fior di Latte is a little firmer but just as milky as mozzarella, which makes it great for pizza. This way it doesn’t cause the dough to get super soppy. There’s a town outside of Naples, Agerola, who in my novice opinion have mastered this cheese. And actually, the pizza there ranks as one of the best Italian pies I’ve ever had, too.
The process of making Fior di Latte is similar to mozzarella. These cheese makers’ days start at about 5am using only the freshest milk possible. I spent a day making Fior di Latte at Caseificio Artigianale Agerolino. It was such a memorable experience and extremely hands on. It was nothing like those online tours you find where they only let you try a couple of squares of cheese, give you a boring lecture and only half a glass of Prosecco. Nicola Florio, the owner of this fab artisanal dairy house, lets you really make cheese, which as I said is similar process to mozzarella, so it’s not easy. You have to quickly shape extremely hot cheese into a ball and then tie a cute knot on top. My knots always came out looking like Alfalfa from Little Rascals, but at least I was consistent.
If you are looking for a unique experience, this is exactly that. Nicola also takes you in his van (don’t worry he checks out) and shows you the town and beautiful views of the Amalfi coast. Turns out, there’s a lot of time to kill when you make cheese. It has to rest for hours in different kinds of positions, so we even had time to eat a three-course lunch at his brother’s restaurant while the Fior di Latte took her time churning into cheese.
The Showstopper: Ricotta
Lady Godiva can take the backseat because Lady Ricotta is the real diva. She comes from Sicily, and she is full of show stopping moments. Sicilians have mastered ricotta, which I know some Italians are hesitant to even call ricotta cheese because it is technically cooked twice. I’m still not sure how this disqualifies it from the cheese family. If I put a piece of bread in the toaster, it comes out toast, but it’s still bread. Right? Regardless, this creamy, rich, sweet, spreadable delight is the perfect addition for savory favorites and sweet treats like the ever so famous cannolo.
Traditionally, she’s made from cow milk, but I’ve had her from sheep and goat, and I can spoon this cheese and eat it like ice cream. I would eat it in the car. I would eat it in a bar. I would eat it from a jar. I would eat it in a box and near a fox, in a house with a mouse. I like Ricotta. Thank you, so much a lotta.
The Salty Queen: Primosale
Oh, she salty, y’all. Primosale translates to “first salt.” You want to eat this cheese fresh. She’s sweet with sour undertones. Primosale is delicate and can be eaten solo or you can drizzle a little oil on top and pair with fruits. It’s fresh and light and a perfect summer cheese. Pungent, a little tangy and surprising, and I’ll never turn this cheese down.
The Life of the Party: Scamorza Affumicata
This bulbous cheese is a crowd pleaser. Bring this to a cookout, and you’ll be a hit. You can dangle this pear-shaped cheese from a rope above a fire and as it begins to melt, you can put meat and bread underneath and you’ve totally made the coolest grilled cheese you’ll ever have.
Scamorza doesn’t have to be smoked, but when it is, naturally it has smokey notes but it also has these really nice nutty and caramel flavors. This cheese, like some sort of heroine, manages to be both delicate and powerful.
The Wild Card: Gorgonzola
Sometimes she’s sweet. Sometimes she’s spicy. Sometimes blue. Sometimes silky. But she’s always got a bite, and that’s why we appreciate gorgonzola. Both firm and granular, the smell and strong taste of gorgonzola makes her memorable.
If you are serving gorgonzola on a cheese board or at a dinner party, let her sit for 30 minutes outside the fridge before you dig in. She needs to be room temperature before she’s ready. Like any complicated woman, she takes a little time to open up.
You Had Me at Cheese Curd: Stracciatella
Stracciatella is the name of a Roman soup, a gelato flavor, and also one of the top cheeses in Italy. Originated in Puglia, this cheese’s name translates to “little shreds,” so the cheese consists of basically shreds of, you guessed it, cheese.
It’s made from cream and the curds of mozzarella, and seriously, big props to any food that can make me think of the word ‘curd’ in a positive way. And when you combine curds and cream, you get these stretchy, creamy, juicy mouth-watering bursts of joy in your mouth.
While you may think that you’ve never heard of this cheese, you’ve probably eaten it. That is, if you’ve had burrata. Stracciatella is what you find inside the center of burrata.
Biggest Flirt: Burrata
What is burrata exactly? Well, as forementioned it’s stracciatella with a mozzarella casing. This cheese is a no brainer. Simply put, burrata takes the delicious parts of other cheeses and makes a new cheese. More accurately, it’s a balanced, harmonious combination of the best parts of mozzarella and stracciatella.
She’s a temptress for sure because once you open her up, she seduces you by oozing a velvety, milky, floaty consistency that leaves you wanting more. Okay, that doesn’t sound really sexy, but if cheese could be sexy, burrata would the Brigite Bardot of dairy.
The Sure Thing: Stracchino
This cheese doesn’t fail. Stracchino is a rich, creamy preservative-free spreadable cheese perfect for a piece of bread or even a more elevated dinner dish like a pasta or a risotto. This cheese is sweet, silky, sometimes a little bitter, and she melts in your mouth like butter. Stracchino contains a natural probiotic, which could also be the reason for that hint of bitterness. So, even though cheese isn’t exactly the best thing for your gut, since Stracchino is a probiotic, I guess it basically has the same nutritional values found in kale. I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure this is the healthiest thing we can eat.
The Unexpected Surprise: Prescinseua
I’ve never had this cheese outside of focaccia di Recco, but I think it’s worth mentioning because the combination of prescinseua (which is made in Liguria) and focaccia is, for lack of a better word, f*$#ing dope. It’s great for breakfast, lunch, a snack, before dinner, after dinner, a little mid-snack … you get the picture.
Honorable Mention: Mascarpone
Mascarpone deserves a mention, mainly because I’m a fan. I like this cheese in desserts, and I even use it in savory dishes. I use it in my polenta, which is not the Italian tradition, but I served my polenta with mascarpone to a room full of Italians, and they all went back for seconds. Mascarpone is a bit unassuming. She’s diverse and yet still has a distinctive flavor. Honestly, when it comes down to it, she’s a fancy cream cheese.
Miss Congeniality: Asiago
Asiago is a reliable, crumbly aged beauty. She’s mild, yet still sweet with hints of a fruity flavor.
And that’s my cheesy lineup.
I think I successfully came up with about 10 to 15 different ways to say ‘this is really good’. Whether I did so without sounding like a complete jerk is up for debate, but my appreciation for cheese has come a long way. I’ve come from adding powdered artificial cheese to my macaroni to making mozzarella from scratch. While I’ve only made semi-decent cheese, I’ve eaten my body weight in really delicious Italian cheese. And when you come to Italy obviously enjoy the wine, pasta and pizza, but don’t forget about spending some time exploring the cheese.
Similar to the food and the wine, each region makes its own cheese, and each is better than the next. It’s all worth the calories and the internal debate of whether or not too much cheese can make you lactose intolerant. It’s a minor problem, whereas the only real one is simply how much cheese is too much cheese? So far, the answer is still to be determined. I’ll take one for the team and continue doing the research. #Cheeseislife