5 Italian Cheeses to Ask for at the Cheese Counter

June 24, 2016

We partnered with Ruffino Wines to share five Italian cheeses you should be stocking and cooking with, ones that you might enjoy outside with a little bubbly, like their Ruffino Prosecco.

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.)

Photo by Mark Weinberg

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.)

Clockwise, from bottom left corner: Marzolino, Testun di Pecora, Stracchino, Piave, and Scamorza. Photo by Mark Weinberg

If you like a slicer cheese like Provolone for sandwiches and to serve alongside fresh, green vegetables, next time try Marzolino.

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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).

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Top Comment:
“Here are four DOP cheeses I would recommend: Robiola di Roccaverano DOP Pecorino Romano DOP Asiago DOP Taleggio DOP Also curiously missing is a veined cheese. I recommend Gorgonzola DOP.”
— 702551

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • jon
  • pondini
  • Tony Squillacioti
    Tony Squillacioti
  • Elizabeth
  • pmporter
I love oysters and unfussy sandwiches.


jon December 12, 2016
Gorganzola Dolce with Comice pear!
pondini June 27, 2016
I would suggest:
organic raw milk 12m aged Provolone
organic Mozzarella di Bufala
organic Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio
organic Bitto
organic Pecorrino Fiore Sarado
pondini June 27, 2016
typo on the last! "organic Pecorino Fiore Sardo."
Tony S. June 26, 2016
Crotone, a yellowish hard cheese with a mild tang, from the town of the same name in Calabria.
Elizabeth June 26, 2016
Fontinella yum
pmporter June 26, 2016
La Tur is my forever cheese, a mixed milk semi-soft from Piedmont. Pecorino Toscano Stagionato DOP for a semi-firm ewe's milk (I'll admit I'm not a fan of Pecorino Romano which I find harsh). And of course Gorgonzola Dolcelatte because who can live without a sweet blue?
icharmeat June 28, 2016
la Tur is an amazingly friendly cheese. I am a beer brewer (have been for 24 years) and we have put more than a bit of effort into finding cheeses that pair well with our offerings. At one particular cheese pairing, tastings we frequently had (we need to get back in that habit), the panel found that la tur worked with all five beers we were trying to pair that day- an amazing feat. While beer is much easier to pair with cheese than wine, finding really good pairings is not easy. I will add that when we are pairing cheese with our beer we look for a match that beer and cheese, at the very least least stand up to each other and are complementary- the flavor of one doesn't twist the flavor of the other- that is the minimum criteria. In the best case, both beer and cheese are elevated by meeting each other. This best case is rare but la Tur matched beautifully with two beers and pleasantly with three others. NEVER before or since has this occurred. I call it magic cheese and I cast it, spell-like as an option whenever I am at a loss for a pairing and hope that the magic runs farther than I have yet explored. Finally, it is delicious on its own. Our cheesemonger hasn't had it lately. I'll have to nudge her.
Renée (. June 26, 2016
Wow. Really interesting discussion here. Now, where would one find some of these gems if you don't live in New York?
702551 June 26, 2016
If you live near a large metropolitan area, chances are there's some cheese importer nearby who is supplying local area restaurants and some grocers.

If you don't live near a major metropolitan area, try There are cheese shops who expedite via UPS/FedEx.
Victoria A. June 26, 2016
Great round up of some spectacular Italian cheeses--I'm going to order a sampling of all of these this week to try.
Thank you
PHIL June 26, 2016
I would like to add Pepato to the mix also
PHIL June 26, 2016
Samantha, you have sparked quite a debate
Sharon June 26, 2016
Fontina. Can't live without it.
Mira V. June 25, 2016
big up for robiola, burrino and pecorino, but non the roman one. there are many different types (regional) you should try the ones from tuscany, sardinia or calabria, all fresh or aged
ChefJune June 25, 2016
Imho, no discussion of Italian cheeses is complete without mentioning Fontina Val d'Aosta. :)
pondini June 25, 2016
You should try the one raw milk Marzolino that comes to the US against the one you have on this plate. Big difference between the two.
Samantha W. June 25, 2016
I'd love to—where do you suggest looking for it pondini?
pondini June 25, 2016
Bedford Cheese (Irving Pl), Artisanal Bistro in NYC; Frannys Restaurant in Brooklyn has it on their menu.
Kathy K. June 24, 2016
I get the piave a lot at andreoli in Scottsdale. Fantastic.
Olivia B. June 24, 2016
Can't wait to get to Stinky and impress them with my cheese knowledge.
PHIL June 24, 2016
Does everyone at Food52 live in Brooklyn?
702551 June 24, 2016
Caciocavallo is not Sicilian.

Caciocavallo Silano has DOP status when made in Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise and Puglia in Southern Italy. Any similar cheese of this type from Sicily does not qualify as DOP.

Sicilian cheese Ragusano DOP used to be called "Caciocavallo Ragusano" decades ago but had to drop the "Caciocavallo" to gain DOP status.
PHIL June 24, 2016
Hi CV, don't really care about the DOP. My Grandmother considered it Sicilian so that is what matters.
702551 June 24, 2016
Well, the EU (or what's left of it) cares about DOP or in English, Protected Designation of Origin.

If you care more about your grandmother's opinion than the EU, I can't argue with that.

Just pointing out how some of these cheeses can or cannot be legally identified.
PHIL June 24, 2016
The way things are going in Europe, I'll stick with Gram
702551 June 25, 2016
I did a bit of research and I'm wondering if your grandmother is referring to Caciocavallo Palermitano. It is typically made in Palermo and Trapani, especially around Godrano and Cinisi.

This cheese is actually made in a brick-like squarish form, unlike the caciocavallo pictured above.
PHIL June 26, 2016
Yes, most likely since she is from Palermo. it is used on Sfincione
PHIL June 24, 2016
also great options include caciocavallo , (also hung like scamorza) and scamorza filled with butter (burrino)
Samantha W. June 24, 2016
Wow, burrino! Sounds delicious.
PHIL June 24, 2016
Of course it is!. You need to get on the B train and head up to Arthur Ave and get some. Both Burrino and caciocavallo are more Sicilian than Italian though, maybe that's another article.
Samantha W. June 24, 2016
Sounds like my next weekend adventure! Yes, I think Sicily requires a whole other deep-dive.
PHIL June 24, 2016
HA HA, I'll meet you there. I'm a Bronx boy born & raised (Italian of course)
Merrill S. June 24, 2016
Seriously, what could be better than cheese and butter together in one happy package. I think I had burrino for the first time on Arthur Avenue -- definitely the place to get it!
PHIL June 24, 2016
Cheese butter with some crusty bread would be better
Sarah J. June 27, 2016
I want in!
PHIL June 27, 2016
On the cheese run to Arthur Ave or the discussion?
Sarah J. June 27, 2016
The cheese, please!
PHIL June 27, 2016
You'll have to talk to your co-worker. She started this whole thing
702551 June 24, 2016
Interesting, only one of the five cheese mentioned above has DOP ("Protected Designation of Origin") status, the Piave, which gained the status just recently in 2010.

Here are four DOP cheeses I would recommend:

Robiola di Roccaverano DOP
Pecorino Romano DOP
Asiago DOP
Taleggio DOP

Also curiously missing is a veined cheese. I recommend Gorgonzola DOP.
702551 June 24, 2016
A fun non-DOP cheese is burrata, a mozzarella with a creamy interior. It should be consumed fresh. The Italians would say within 24 hours.

You can find domestic burrata in some places in the USA.
Samantha W. June 24, 2016
Love burrata, cv. Great suggestion. If you like that creamy interior, I definitely recommend the Stracchino, if you can find or order it.
702551 June 24, 2016
I would say that Taleggio DOP is a pretty good sub for Stracchino.
702551 June 25, 2016
Just as an addendum, Taleggio DOP is an aged cheese with a rind and more assertive flavors than the mild Stracchino.
pondini June 26, 2016
That's actually only partly true. "Stracchino" is a generic term used in northern Italy to reference several cheeses. Mostly it's a fresh cheese, the type you are describing (aka Crescenza), which is meant to be consumed within a week. But there are also Stracchino which are similar to Taleggio. One is Stracchino di Vedeseta (from the town of Vedeseta) which is like the origin cheese of Taleggio. It's a washed rind made from raw milk and ambient microbial cultures, the way it was done 80+ years ago.
Samantha W. June 26, 2016
Great distinction -- I'm definitely talking about Crescenza! This is the style I've encountered most often, but I'd love to try the style from Vedeseta. I love washed rind cheeses.