Italian Cheeses are a huge part of Italian meals.
There is no formal fixed cheese course in Italian dining, as there is in French dining. In Italian cuisine, a cheese can be served before a meal, after, or more likely during, as an ingredient, topping or garnish to many varied food items, more so than many other cuisines such as French or German. Italians never serve cheese with fish or seafood, though: not for any religious or dietary reasons, just out of preference and tradition.
Their use in cooking makes Italian cheeses perhaps the world’s most popular cheeses, owing to the demand for mozzarella on pizzas and parmesan on top of pasta, etc. It may also make Italian cheeses the most imitated, with many imitation Italian-style cheeses being made abroad in places such as Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Wisconsin, and Australia.
The four most popular Italian cheeses for grating as an ingredient or garnish are Asiago, Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) & Pecorino, with Parmesan leading the pack.
Italian cheese makers still tend for the most part to use milk from their area, contributing to a strong local character to the cheeses. In Northern Italy, they will use milk from goats that have grazed on the vegetation of the more temperate north, and in the south of Italy, the goats will have grazed on the different vegetation in that hotter climate.
The cheeses are mostly coagulated with rennet, though some use vegetable coagulants such as cardoon.
Types of Italian Cheeses
Italian cheeses can be grouped by how you use the cheese, by the region of Italy it was from, whether it is a soft, firm or hard cheese, or, by the type of milk used. The cheeses can also be classified based on how the curd was processed (cooked versus uncooked, pressed versus unpressed), and how long the cheese was aged.
Types of Italian Cheese by Fat Content
Italian cheeses can be classified by fat-content:
- semi-fat; or
Parmesan is a skim-milk cheese; (genuine) mozzarella is a full-fat cheese.
Types of Italian Cheese by Firmness
This refers to the moisture content of the cheese. Hard cheeses will be gratable; soft cheeses will be spreadable or spoonable.
- firm (aka hard) cheeses (Formaggio duro, formaggio a pasta dura);
- semi-firm (aka semi-hard) cheeses (Formaggio a pasta semidura; Formaggio semiduro); or
- soft (Formaggio a pasta molle; Formaggio morbido).
Four types of milk are used in Italian cheeses, depending on the geographic area where those livestock have been traditionally raised:
Cow’s Milk Italian Cheeses
Northern Italy: Regions of Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, The Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, Val d’Aosta.
Cow’s milk cheeses are called “vaccini” cheeses, from the Italian word for cow, “vacca.”
Sheep’s Milk Italian Cheeses
Central Italy: Abruzzo, Latium, Molise, The Marches, Tuscany, Umbria
Southern Italy: Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Sardinia, Sicily
Sheep’s milk cheeses are called “pecorini” cheeses, from the Italian word for sheep, “pecora”, or “latte ovino”, “latte” meaning milk and “ovino from the Latin word for sheep, “ovinus.”
Goat’s Milk Italian Cheeses
Various regions of Italy from south to north, but in particular Abruzzo, Calabria, Liguria, Molise, Piedmont, Trentino
They are called “caprini” cheeses, from the Italian word for goat, “capra” (think of the English zodiac word, “capricorn.”). These cheeses are often a mixture of goat’s and cow’s milk.
Buffalo Milk Italian Cheeses
Lazio, Campania, and a small area near Foggia, Puglia.
Buffalo Milk cheeses are called “bufalini” cheeses, from the Italian word for buffalo, “bufalo”
Mixed Milk Italian Cheeses
Mixed milk cheeses are referred to as “a latte misto” cheeses, from the Italian words “latte” meaning “milk” and “misto” meaning mixed.
Italian goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses can be a mixture of goat’s and cow’s cheese (though the producer will say: this is not done surreptitiously. This is a traditional feature of the cheese, not a modern cost-saving measure.) Some cheeses, such as Robiola valle Belbo, will be a mixture of all three: goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and cow’s milk.