Lesser-known cheeses from Italy and Mexico are spicing up menus stateside.
Cheese is a way of life.
That’s how Tony Priolo, chef and co-owner of Chicago’s Piccolo Sogno, describes his love of cheese. “It has the ability to enhance just about any dish,” he says.
In addition to Piccolo Sogno, Priolo co-owns Nonnina with his business partner and longtime friend, Ciro Longobardo. He’s also appeared on numerous television shows including The Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Cheeses pop up in a number of menu items at Piccolo Sogno, which focuses on traditional Italian dishes. He says one of the only rules in Italian cooking is to never use cheese in seafood dishes. The rest of the menu is fair game.
“Everything else can get cheese,” he says. A fava bean appetizer is brightened by pecorino, a salty, hard cheese not unlike parmesan but made with sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk. The majority of Piccolo Sogno’s pizzas feature fior di latte (fresh mozzarella), while bustine pasta shells are stuffed with artichoke and buffalo ricotta.
Priolo says burrata (fresh shreds of mozzarella soaked in cream and surrounded by an outer layer of mozzarella) could become more popular since it pairs so well with seasonal produce. Dishes like a grilled peach salad topped with burrata or olive tapenade and burrata spread on crunchy French bread show off the cheese’s versatility. Drunken cheese (soaked in wine) is another Italian classic that’s working its way onto U.S. menus.
“Black truffle cheese, cheeses with peppercorns—all of these are definitely starting to show up more,” Priolo says.
Though his own cooking stays rooted in Italian cuisine, Priolo has noticed an uptick in the availability of other international cheeses. He says Mexican varieties like queso fresco and Oaxaca cheese are becoming more common—even at restaurants that aren’t necessarily Mexican concepts. Fried halloumi (a Greek staple) is also becoming more popular, he adds.
“Ten to 20 years ago, you couldn’t easily find these cheeses unless you were in a specialty market or the country where the cheese comes from,” he says. “Now, with better and more modern transportation, cheeses from other cultures are available. You just couldn’t get halloumi or legit Greek feta unless you were in Greece.”
And demand for cheese is as strong as ever. USDA data shows that between 2009 and 2019, per capita consumption of cheese increased 19 percent. And according to market research company Statista, U.S. customers consumed just shy of 40 pounds of cheese per capita in 2021—second only to Europe, where consumers eat an average of nearly 45 pounds annually.
“There’s no question about it. I love cheese. It’s a great element of a dish,” says Susan Feniger, a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and former television personality. She is also the co-owner of the California-based micro-chain Border Grill.
Along with her business partner Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger opened the first Border Grill in 1985, with a menu featuring regional recipes inspired by home cooks from all over Mexico. Since debuting 37 years ago, Border Grill brand has grown to multiple locations, food trucks, and a catering business, as well as additional concepts like Socalo and BBQ Mexicana.
For Feniger, cheese is more than an ingredient that adds flavor to a dish. She uses cheese as a way to structurally fortify certain dishes.
“We’ll take a mixture of cheeses and melt it on the comal [a flat griddle] to make it crispy. Then we lay the tortilla over it and flip it over,” she says. “It not only acts as an additional layer, but it also acts as a barrier for the tortilla so it doesn’t get soggy.”
Feniger says the recent popularity of dishes like quesabirria (a corn tortilla filled with melted Mexican cheese and stewed meat) has made more obscure, cheese-centric Mexican dishes mainstream. As quesabirria breaks out of regional markets and into the national restaurant scene, she believes authentic Mexican cheeses will become increasingly prevalent beyond California and other border states.
“Mexican cheeses are certainly more available than when we first opened Border Grill,” she says. “At one point you could only find these cheeses in Los Angeles, but now, they’re everywhere.”
In terms of other cheese trends, Feniger predicts some dishes that have fallen out of favor in recent decades could be poised for a resurgence.
“You used to see a breaded and fried brie on a lot of menus, but that hasn’t been around for a while,” she says. “But, I think it’s such a good dish, and it’s comforting. It’s perfect for today’s dining environment where customers are looking for something familiar.”
Feniger says raclette, an Alpine dish with Swiss cheese melted over potatoes, has a chance at making a comeback, especially given the spectacle of it. Raclette is regularly prepared tableside, with servers melting the cheese directly from the wheel onto the plate.
“With so many people using their home for entertainment over the last several years, I think now people want to head out for that experience,” she says.
Fondue is another dish Feniger thinks could return to glory. The once-popular menu item hasn’t seen the same demand as it once did in the 1960s and ’70s, but a bevy of new cheeses to melt might give it a legup.
“I could imagine [fondue] making a big comeback,” Feniger says. “It’s such a great dish. I think you could turn it into something really interesting. I’d love to see that.”