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.