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Cultured on Cheese

Today’s grocery stores give Americans more access than ever to an authentic selection of what Italians buy in their own markets. But with variety comes the tough task of choosing: Italy has more than 450 kinds. In this culinary lesson we will learn the better-known cheeses of Italy, how to read labels and decipher pungent ones from sweet, and tips for integrating them into meals as enhancements or stand-alone spectacles.

Words to the Wise

Next time you reach for a wedge of cheese from your market’s cheese section, read these descriptors with confidence:
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  • Dolce means a sweet and often young cheese.
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  • Pastorizzato means a cheese has been pasteurized.
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  • Piccante means the cheese has a sharp, bold taste. Often seen on aged or hard cheeses.
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  • Stagionato means a cheese is aged; vecchio means it is an old cheese, and stravecchio means the cheese is very old.

Popular Italian Cheeses and Where To Use Them

Italians eat cheese as part of antipasti plates, integrated into recipes, and even for dessert with fruit and a glass of sweet wine. Here are some of the country’s most popular, and how to use them.

 

Asiago: This cow’s milk cheese comes from the Veneto, the same region as Venice. Often baked into breads or grated into cream sauces, it is versatile, slightly sweet, and in the United States it can be found in almost any cheese section.
Burrata: In the United States, this seasonal treat is usually only available in the summer. Thick cream is literally wrapped into a young cow’s milk mozzarella, and oozes out when cut. Delicious with fresh tomatoes or spread on bread or crackers, if you see it on a menu or in a store, or if someone local makes it, don’t pass it up ... you never know when you’ll see it again.
Fontina: A cow’s milk cheese that tastes different depending on whether milking took place in summer or winter, the only authentic Fontina is made in the region of Aosta, not the Danish variety in red wax you may be used to seeing. Eat Fontina on its own, experiment by melting it on pizza topped with prosciutto and walnuts, or serve it in a classic fonduta sauce that is indicative of the Aosta region.
Gorgonzola: A Jekyll and Hyde cheese, Gorgonzola comes in two varieties: dolce (mild) and piccante (pungent). Similar to blue cheese, Gorgonzola has veins running through it and is delicious stuffed in dates, crumbled on salads, or used in richly flavorful sauces. Since it is an acquired taste, add it sparingly any time you use it.
Mozzarella di Bufala: This fresh cheese is made from either cow’s milk, or buffalo milk. Rarely eaten alone, fresh mozzarella is best featured in a caprese salad with fresh tomatoes and basil, and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar or as part of a bruschetta.
Parmigiano Reggiano: Known by chefs and cheese connoisseurs as the "king of cheese," Parmigiano Reggiano is a hard cow’s milk cheese found all over Italy, and is especially delicious grated on pasta, served with wedges of apples or pears (Italians love serving cheese as a dessert). Only rinds featuring the famous name outlined in pin dots denote the real thing: anything else is imitation “parmesan,” and not allowed to be called Parmigiano Reggiano.
Pecorino: Partially cooked, with a slightly hard texture, pecorino is a common name used for sheep's milk cheese. It is more pungent than Parmigiano Reggiano but similarly used in recipes. Serve with pears, apples and walnuts or drizzled with honey or olive oil.
Provolone: Americans often see this cheese in slices on deli sandwiches thanks to its extremely mild flavor and superb meltability. If you like to make pizza at home, add sliced or shredded provolone to your cheese mix for a deeper flavor. It browns well, too.
Ricotta: Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the cheese making process. It’s not actually recognized by the Italian government as a cheese, but it is revered nonetheless. Buy it homemade any time you can, and use it in bakery recipes, mixed with herbs and spices for stuffed pasta recipes, or eat it alone with a drizzle of honey.