Italian cheeses give chefs a wide range of flavor characteristics to play with in their dishes.
There’s something special about cheese when it comes to Italian food. Whether it’s shredded atop pasta, cooked in a casserole, layered on top of pizza, or simply served by itself, the right cheese can make or break a dish, chefs say.
“I believe it makes a significant difference in the taste and texture [of a dish],” says Luca Corazzina, executive chef at 312 Chicago. “What I try to do is traditional Italian recipes with some upscale touches. For that, the cheese has to be right.”
For chefs like Corazzina, about the only cheese varieties that will do for their restaurants are those from Italy. For some others, factors such as cost, the difficulty in importing particular cheeses, and even taste and texture mean opting for a domestic version.
The process of making cheese is relatively straightforward whether it’s in Italy, the U.S., or other countries. It’s a process that goes back millennia, starting as a natural method for preserving milk from various animals.
“What makes Italian cheese unique is the experience we have with it,” says Alberto Vanoli, assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America and chef of the school’s Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, noting specifically Italian cheese’s taste, texture, and how it is integrated into cuisine.
Cheese’s flavor and texture is as much the result of a particular geographic location as the cheese-making method, he says. This is known best by the term terroir, a French word to describe all the environmental factors that impact a food item’s qualities. Where an animal is raised has a direct impact on the milk it produces. And cheese itself also relies on environmental factors, such as the place and climate where it is aged.
Cheese “is all about terroir,” says Sara Hill, cheese education manager for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “That can be the land, the soil, the weather, the water source—all the different factors that make a sense of place.”
Cheese made with cow’s milk in one part of Wisconsin is different not only from milk in California, New York, or Vermont, but also from other parts of Wisconsin, she says. This is also true of Italian cheese.
The cheese-making process can be unique, too. Peter Kelly, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, recalls taking a group of students to watch as Parmigiano-Reggiano, a famous Italian hard, aged cheese, was made.
“There were these enormous, steaming kettles of milk,” he says. When the cheesemaker decided the right temperature was reached for the heated, stirred milk, the rennet—an enzyme from an animal’s stomach, in this case a calf—was added to begin the curdling process.
“You could see it get creamy and velvety on top,” he says. The curds and whey were ladled into cheesecloth, the liquid twisted out, and the remainder put into big metal wheel molds. The wheels were placed in brine tubs before going on shelves for aging.
There are large and artisan cheese-makers doing American versions of Italian cheese, employing techniques learned from the old country. The taste and texture of these various cheese varieties can be exceptional, albeit not exactly the same as that made in Italy.
All the cheese made by BelGioioso Cheese in Green Bay, Wisconsin, uses cow’s milk, although a couple varieties, including a crumbly Gorgonzola, also has sheep’s milk. The company was launched in 1979 by Errico Auricchio, whose great-grandfather was a cheesemaker in Italy. Its first cheese was Provolone, and it has expanded to dozens more, including a version of Grana Padano called American Grana.
“They took what they learned from Italy and brought it to Wisconsin,” says Katie Dennis, BelGioioso’s vice president of marketing. “The taste is different, but only because there is a difference between the landscape and cows.”
Getting some chefs—those who are classically trained or who hail from Italy—to try American-made Italian-style cheese “has been the hardest nut to crack,” Hill says. “They want to do everything as authentically as possible. So, one of the things we try to do is get people to try the cheese. In many cases, it rivals the imports.”
Italian cheese uses milk from cows, sheep, water buffalo, and, to a lesser extent, goats, and all have different taste profiles. The milk used in cheese from Italy is generally not pasteurized, and that also can make a difference in taste because the bacteria in milk are important for the flavor in the aging process. Most American milk must be pasteurized.
A number of cheese varieties imported from Italy carry Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) titles, which is meant to protect and promote certain agricultural products throughout the European Union and in some cases around the world.
That protection doesn’t necessarily exist in the U.S. For instance, Asiago is a cheese from the Asiago plateau of the Veneto region of Italy, and there are strict rules on where and how it may be produced. But American Asiago can use a variety of cultures and techniques to create a similar but different-tasting cheese. The same situation exists with other varieties, including Fontina and Gorgonzola. An American version may carry a slightly different name—Parmesan instead of the protected Parmigiano-Reggiano, or cow’s milk Romano, rather than sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano.
Another popular variety, Mozzarella, a key pizza topping, is made in Italy with buffalo milk, but in America is made with cow’s milk. Importing Mozzarella and another popular fresh cheese, Burrata, from Italy is dicey because it has a short shelf life.
Corazzina, who was raised in Padua, near Venice, uses a range of Italian cheeses at 312 Chicago. They range from Fontina in a dish with a roasted pork chop, prosciutto, and rosemary roasted potatoes to Parmigiano-Reggiano in the Agnelotti di Carne that also has half-moon shaped pasta stuffed with braised short ribs and an herb demi glace sauce.
While some imported cheeses cost more than the domestic version, “Americans’ knowledge about great products has grown, and they are willing to spend money for great products,” Corazzina says. “I would rather make money in volume.”
Using Italian cheese is important at Quattro in the Four Seasons Houston Hotel, says sous chef Andrea Ferrandi. He prefers the taste and authenticity of cheese made by small producers in Italy who have a passion for what they do.
“It’s not just the milk from cows, sheep, or goats, but the climate, the location, and the farmers,” he says. His food reflects that, he adds, pointing to the shredded sheep’s milk cheese for Pasta Pecorino Sardo from Sardinia or the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on Risotto alla Milanese.
In some cases, however, a local Italian-style cheese works very well. Ferrandi uses a Ricotta made from cow and goat milk that is produced near Houston.
Drew Van Leuvan, chef of Seven Lamps in Atlanta, is known for making fresh pasta daily and is invested in his ingredients’ authenticity. As a result, he imports a range of Italian cheeses, most notably Asiago and Grana Padano.
“They are not quite as hard as a Parmigiano-Reggiano, but both have a taste that is very similar,” he says. “We micro-plane them on top of the pasta, and they both give you a caramelized milk flavor with salt crystals. It balances the dish.”
His other imported cheeses include Burrata, smoked Mozzarella, Fontina (which he calls a “great melting cheese” for sauces), and Pecorino Toscano with its sheep’s milk “zing.”
At Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, a New York favorite that has been owned and operated by the Scognamillo family since it opened in 1944, there are certain characteristics that are required in the cheese that is used, almost all of which is imported.
“Take the Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese should be aged 18–24 months so there is a sweetness and slight crunchiness to it,” says Sal Scognamillo, chef and part of the restaurant family’s third generation. It works well with various pasta dishes, he adds.
Rather than importing fragile Mozzarella, however, Scognamillo buys cheese made daily by Di Palo’s Fine Foods, just as the family has done for the last 72 years. Milk from upstate New York cows is used to make it.
Meanwhile, the homemade Italian cheese preferred by Andrea Soldini, owner and executive chef of MIUSA Wine Bar in New York, “reminds me of my country,” he says. Soldini makes his own Burrata using unpasteurized whole milk from upstate New York. It’s an easy but time-consuming process, and the taste “is different than it is in Italy,” he says.
He is not opposed to using some domestic cheese, though. His cheese plates may include Spring Brook cheese made from raw cow’s milk and VBC Bonnie Bouche, a goat cheese made by Vermont Creamery, as well as imported Pecorino Toscano.
Pizza makers differ on their choice of mozzarella. Aliño Pizzeria in Mooresville, North Carolina, imports fresh buffalo Mozzarella weekly from a small farm near Naples, Italy, and owner Michael Bay believes that is why the restaurant has been so successful since opening.
“Although the cheese is almost four times more expensive than regular Mozzarella and 44 times more difficult to import, I will still always use that cheese,” he says. “That’s because the taste and texture is 444 times better. It’s simple black and white.”
His Neapolitan-style pizza bakes quickly at high heat, and the buffalo Mozzarella “melts like butter, while the other melts like plastic,” he says.
On the other hand, MOD Pizza, a growing national fast casual, opts for a domestic Mozzarella from Wisconsin.
“Mozzarella is obviously one of our key ingredients,” says Brian Figler, culinary manager of the 110-unit, Seattle-based chain. “I’ve tried about 150–200 varieties from different companies, and this one keeps winning out.”
The reason it works comes down to taste and texture. “It’s how it sits on a pizza: really smooth looking,” Figler says. “Some Mozzarellas are not strong enough to handle the heat of our ovens and turn to liquid. This melts perfectly and is pearly white with a little bit of brown if we let it sit. It has a wonderful flavor.”
Rich Friedrich, chef of PJW Restaurant Group, uses a wide variety of Italian cheeses, particularly at the company’s Treno restaurant. “We think the taste and texture of different cheeses are important for our guests,” he says.
Treno’s cheese plate includes Parmigiano-Reggiano, as well as lesser-known Rossini Blue—a cheese washed in white wine and wrapped in grape leaves—and Weinkase Lagrein, a northern Italian cow’s milk cheese soaked in wine, herbs, garlic, and pepper. The plate also has domestic Humboldt Fog, a goat’s milk cheese from California.
One of the most popular menu items at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Colorado, is the Frico Caldo, made with grated Montasio cheese, Yukon Gold potatoes, sweated onions, and other ingredients cooked in a very hot cast-iron pan.
“It comes out with a cheesy potato hash brown take,” says Duncan Holmes, the restaurant’s culinary director. An Alpine cheese made from cow’s milk produced in and around Friuli, Italy, Montasio—another PDO cheese—has a variety of aging lengths, but the one favored at Frasca is longer. “We try to get that one as often as we can,” Holmes says.