While French cheeses are often served at the beginning or end of a meal, or as a snack in their own right with your beverage of choice, Italian cheeses are often a component of the meal itself – the appetizer, main dish or even dessert. Mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano are perhaps the two best-known Italian cheeses outside of Italy, although there are plenty more to choose from. Asiago is beautiful in a gratin, mozzarella is wonderful on pizza, and ricotta is wonderful scooped up on crusty bread, or you might prefer it in lasagna or in a rich pasta sauce.
The distinct salty bite of gorgonzola contrasts well with the sweetness of pear, while provolone can be served with meatballs or roast pork in a sandwich, or used in omelets. Grace your cheeseboard selection with some fruity fontina, or add it to a panini with chicken or turkey. Robiola Piemonte is soft and tangy, made with cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk, and delicious served as part of a cheese platter or in the Italian style with salt, pepper and a little extra-virgin olive oil. If you are enjoying a platter of Italian cheeses then don’t forget to serve a glass of prosecco (Italy’s answer to champagne) with it!
Some cheeses are used to make desserts, with mascarpone being a prime example. This cheese is rich and creamy, and used to make tiramisu. It is also nice thinned with a little cream and lightly sweetened, then served with fresh berries or summer fruits. Ricotta is sometimes used in cheesecake recipes.
The History of Italian Cheese
As far back as ancient times, cheese has played an important role in Italian cuisine, since cheese-making was the only way to preserve milk before refrigeration was invented. The Romans were passionate about making cheese and a lot of Roman homes had a dedicated cheese-making kitchen where the cheeses would be made, stored and aged.
It is estimated there are more than 450 types of cheese made in Italy, 34 of which have been granted a protected status. Most Italian cheeses with PDO status have a historic origin, such as pecorino which dates back about 2000 years. If you usually find yourself buying parmesan or mozzarella, next time you are in the deli or grocery store, pick up some taleggio, fontina or asiago instead, and delve into the delicious world of Italian cheeses. There are about 450 of them to sample, after all!