The Cheese and Wine of Italy
There is tremendous pride in the regional offerings of food and beverages in Italy. From north to south, the uniqueness of the climate, soil, and methods of preparation create food and wine that can be found only in that province or region. This is quite apparent when you see the array of cheese, sausage, and especially wine in markets and shops.
When Italians travel outside their home region, they enjoy the unique local offerings—unlike many American travelers, who often look for meals of familiar dishes. That’s one reason why we have so many restaurant chains in our country. A Big Mac in Portland, Maine, will taste exactly the same as a Big Mac in Portland, Oregon. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing that, but the sameness of meal choices can prevent us from fully exploring everything that a region has to offer.
Italians enjoy trying the wines and cheese of neighboring regions. If Tuscans should travel south, for example, they don’t look for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. They want the local offerings of Puglia, Campania, and Sicily. With that spirit of discovery in mind, here are some basic cheeses you should try. We’ve also paired each cheese with an appropriate wine. Salute!
Perhaps the best-known Italian cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano—the king of cheese—is made from cow’s milk. It is a hard cheese, very flavorful and fragrant, and it is served by itself, not as a grated add-on to a dish. While Pecorino Romano is most commonly grated and served with pasta, soups, and other dishes, Parmigiano-Reggiano is often served at the end of the meal. It can be served with sliced fruits and nuts, and is most delightful when dipped in small amounts of honey or fig jam.
By government law, Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be made in the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, and Modena regions. It has grade designations, each based on the duration of aging. Authenticity is assured when you see the producer’s registration number marked on the cheese, as well as the month and year of production. If aged one year it’s called giovane. If aged two years, it’s called vecchio. If aged three years, it’s called stravecchio. And if aged for four years or longer, it’s called stravecchione. Its rind is the yellow of fresh straw and has a slightly oily feel. The inside is also yellow, with a flaky, grainy texture.
Because the cheese is so aromatic, with a fruity aspect that deepens with age, Parmigiano-Reggiano pairs nicely with a sparkling white, young red, or dry white wine, such as franciacorta, lambrusco or recioto di gambellara.
Pecorino Roman cheese is made from sheep’s milk and is primarily made in Sardinia, but also elsewhere including some small towns in Tuscany. I found a wonderful vendor in the small town of Greve near Florence. It is a sharp cheese, hard, salty, and very flavorful, most often grated and served with pasta dishes. In bucatini all’amatriciana, for example, it is mixed in with the sauce to add great flavor and to thicken it.
Pecorino Romano’s rind is pale yellow, hard, and smooth. The inside is firm and white. Because it is a bold, salty cheese, it pairs well with an aged red wine, like cesanese del piglio. By the way, tradition has it that a hefty chunk of Pecorino Romano was part of the food ration for Roman soldiers of the first century. Perhaps you’ll understand why when its unique flavor bursts in your mouth.
Mozzarella di Bufola Campania
This soft cheese is made from the milk of water buffalos and is used commonly on pizza, in casseroles, and especially in lasagna. There are many mozzarellas, but what is considered the best is Mozzarella di Bufola Campania, and to carry this name it can only be made in Lazio and Campania.
While it is available in the U.S., shipped and sold in vacuum-sealed packages, it is best enjoyed fresh, and it’s a true delight to eat it on the day that it is made. When fresh, it has a high water content. The dried mozzarella is what’s mostly used for pizza and casseroles, but pizza made with fresh mozzarella is wonderful.
There are other fine versions of mozzarella made in other regions of Italy and the U.S., some are made from other milks, but buffalo milk mozzarella from Campania is considered the best. The flavor is milky, delicate, and slightly gamey, with a soft texture. A nice wine would be a dry white, such as falanghina or ischia bianco.
This is a cheese from northern Italy, named after the town of Asiago in the Venito region. As with most Italian cheeses, it has a protected designation of origin (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or DOP), and the milk collected for its production comes from parts of four regions in the northeast of Italy.
It is available both fresh (soft) and hard like Pecorino or Parmigiano cheeses. In its hard form it is grated and widely used in cooking. In its soft form it is melted on many dishes including Panini (sandwiches). It is also eaten alone in both hard and soft forms. It has a nutty flavor, similar to Parmigiano, but is a bit less salty. Depending on the age, asiago rinds can be straw colored to a brownish gray, flexible to hard. On the young side, the flavor is milder, slightly sweet and milky. When older, the flavor profile is sharp and pungent. Depending on the age of the cheese, pair it with a young or aged red, like a valpolicella or an amarone della valpolicella.
This is a cows’ milk cheese produced in the southern provinces of Calabria, Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, and Molise. The name means “cheese on horseback,” and refers to the traditional method of aging the cheese by tying two tear-drop-shaped bundles together with a rope and dangling them over a stick, as if draped over the back of a horse. It is ripened from two months to two years, and is generally presented in that tear-drop or gourd shape, with a little knob at the top where the rope or string would be tied.
Young versions are mild and salty, but the flavor increases with a distinctive tang as it grows older. A nice wine to enjoy with Caciocavallo Silano is a hearty, full-bodied red, such as ciro rosso.
Called the “Sardinian flower,” Fiore Sardo is a sheep’s milk cheese only made on the island of Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily). It was traditionally made by shepherds in their mountain huts, smoked over an open fire, and rubbed with both sheep fat and olive oil. The more commercially produced versions these days dispense with the smoke and lard, though some old-school types can be found. You’ll know the cheese has been smoked when you see the black rind. Otherwise, the rind runs from golden yellow to dark brown. The inside runs from off-white to straw yellow in color, and it hardens quite a bit when aged more than six months.
The flavor is very rich and nutty, with an intriguing suggestion of caramel. The flavors strengthen and sharpen with age. Because of its full flavor, pair this cheese with an aged or full-bodied red, like chianti or monica di sardegna.
One of the world’s great cheeses, the appearance and flavor of Gorgonzola are unmistakable. It is named after the town of Gorgonzola near Milan, and produced in Piedmont and Lombardy. The blue-green veins that run through the cheese and give it so much of its flavor are mold, whose growth is encouraged during production. It is not aged long—about two to three months and up to six months. The younger expressions are creamy and lighter in color, while the older have more prominent veins and are firmer and crumbly.
The strong, earthy flavor has a suggestion of sweetness when the cheese is young, but it becomes sharper and more pungent with age. This is bold cheese, with a lot to say, so pair it with a dry white or aged red wine, such a pinot nero or traminer.