It's normal to reach for the same cheeses again and again when cooking Italian food or serving up a cheese board with prosciutto and antipasti. It's just like anything you gravitate toward to be sure of your footing—a dish you've made more than a few times, wine you'd buy because you know its label. But I'm a curious cheese eater, and maybe you are too. I'm often seeking to change up my cheese game, and generally look to what's new or interesting at the cheese counter. (Your cheesemonger can help with this.)
And this is the place to try your hand at choosing more regional cheeses, ones you or I may not be aware of (or don't know how to pronounce). I've been working a few new ones into my own repertoire: Here are five Italian cheeses to confidently ask for by name. (And if your cheese spot doesn't stock them now, see if they will—maybe you can be the trendsetter.)
If you like a slicer cheese like Provolone for sandwiches and to serve alongside fresh, green vegetables, next time try Marzolino.
Marzolino, a sheep's milk cheese named for how it originally debuted each March, is a fresh style of pecorino that's generally made in Tuscany. As I've mentioned before, one of my favorite sandwiches I ate in Italy had fresh cheese, an egg omelette, greens, and sun-dried tomatoes. Marzolino wouldn't have been out of place with these ingredients, and it may have very well been the cheese I remember (probably coupled up with it's regional friend, Chianti).
Its slightly grassy and buttery flavor, coupled with a slightly gummy texture, takes to a quick, soft shave over fava beans, served on a roll with cured meats, or alongside giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables). It can also stand in for mozzarella, says Janet Fletcher, publisher of Planet Cheese. You can use it in a Caprese salad, with just a little olive oil and cracked black pepper, and on summer vegetables, she adds.
If you are looking for another melter like mozzarella, next time, try Scamorza.
Scamorza is a cow's milk cheese made in parts of Apulia, Campania, and Molise. Scamorza is made similarly to fresh mozzarella, but near the end of the cheesemaking process, the cheese is strung up around its middle to age for two weeks. (Hence its funny shape, which I've heard compared to a Bartlett pear.) This process is where the cheese gets its name—Scamorza means "beheaded" in Italian.
I especially like Scamorza Affumicate, or smoked Scamorza—that's what you'll see in the photo above. After the cheese is hung and aged, it's either sold as is or, more often, smoked over flaming straw to burnish its sides and impart extra flavor. Scamorza is a great substitute in dishes that call for mozzarella, from baked pasta dishes to pressed sandwiches. It goes well with a fruity, floral white wine that'll complement the creamy texture and slightly smoky flavor.
If your looking for something like Fontina, take a gander at Testun di Pecora.
Testun di Pecora, a Piedmontese cheese originating south of the city of Cuneo, is a semi-hard cheese made from sheep's milk that's aged from a few months to 2 years. Testun—which means hard, or hard head, in Italian—comes in many textures, varying based on how long it is aged. It can range from springy to crumbly and hard, with small, uniform holes and an ivory coloring. The entire cheese is a wheel, and the rind is beautifully ridged.
Because it's made from sheep's milk, Janet says that it has a certain tang and sourness to it, a cultured milk flavor. It's lovely as a table cheese passed around as you eat dinner, added to gratins or, if you get your hands on an aged version, grated over gnocchi, risotto, or in ravioli like Pecorino Romano or Parmesan. It lends itself to one of those lunches that ends up just being bread, cheese, olive oil, and red wine.
If you love a tangy cheese like ricotta or Stracciatella di bufala for spreading on bread or to stir in with pasta, try Stracchino.
Stracchino is one of my great cheese loves. Produced in Northern Italy, mostly in Piedmont and Lombardy, it is made from either cow's milk or with mixed milks. This unripened Italian cheese is soft and mild, with just a hint of tang and no rind to be seen, bulging at the sides as it comes to room temperature.
In Italy I ate Stracchino slathered on ciabatta with sausage and balsamic vinegar at Casa del Vino—there was little else so prized to me in Florence. It's an impeccable melter, ready to be plopped onto pizza or polenta, or served as a side with fresh arugula or cooked, chilled broccoli rabe. To be honest, I'd eat it straight from a spoon—and Janet says its just as good as a breakfast cheese, slathered on raisin toast. Bubbles or a light white wine, like Pinot Grigio or Orvieto, would be a good partner for it. It's a little tough to source, but if you have a good Italian market near you, my guess is that they'll gladly order it if you ask.
Looking for a hard cheese to serve after dinner, or something to grate or shave onto salads? Spring for Piave next time.
Piave may not be way out there in terms of Italian cheese, but it's definitely one you should be reaching for more often. Named for the Piave river in Italy's Veneto region, it's sweet, fruity, and hay-colored but not without some underlying bitterness for balance. Most respectable counters have this hard, flaky cow's milk cheese on hand, and it's a good option to change up what's shaved or sprinkled atop your green salads or bubbling lasagnas. It also sits pretty among other cheeses, so add some thick slices to your next board, plus a medium-bodied red wine. And, says Janet, because of its sweet, fruity profile, it's a perfect friend for after-dinner drinks, too.
What's your favorite under-appreciated cheese? Give it some love in the comments!
We're partnering with Ruffino Wines to share recipes for food and drink throughout the year that'll get you living like an Italian (in spirit—although we can't promise you won't want to pick up and move there). See all their wines here.