The Complete Guide to Italian Cheeses (and the 13 Kinds to Know)
Plus, the best dishes to enjoy them in
With over 400 different kinds, it’s very easy to get lost in the world of Italian cheeses. Not only does each region have its own varieties and production methods, but many different milks can be used as well, from buffalo and cow’s milk, to goat- and sheep’s milk.
We’re all familiar with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, but it’s time to get to know some more classic Italian cheeses. Here’s our guide, sorted by texture (soft, semi-soft, or hard) and complete with ideas on how to cook up delicious, cheesy dishes. Buon appetito!
Before we begin, a few diet notes: Many cheeses mentioned here contain the cow-sourced enzyme rennet and are therefore not vegetarian, though different brands may offer vegetarian friendly versions. For more on this, check out our article on how to figure out which cheeses are vegetarian.
If you are lactose intolerant, as a general rule of thumb you can check the sugar content of the packet of cheese as an indication of the lactose level: Cheese with low levels of lactose will have 5 g or less per 100g and anything with less than 1 g is considered to have ‘trace’ levels. Generally, the longer the aging process, the less lactose is present.
Types of soft Italian cheeses
Tasting notes: A close relative to mozzarella, burrata is a richly creamy cheese from the south of Italy. It has a distinctive soft, almost liquid center which often seems ready to burst at any moment—so handle with care.
How burrata is made: Traditionally burrata is encased in the leaves of a lily plant and brined. However, you’ll most likely come across it knotted or tied up with string and brined in a plastic container.
Use burrata for these dishes: Burrata is delicious on bruschetta or as a creamy upgrade to a Caprese salad, but you can pretty much use it anywhere you would fresh mozzarella.
Tasting notes: Smooth and rich, mascarpone is the creamiest cheese on our list. In fact, it’s more like a double cream than a cheese in its taste, texture, and production.
How mascarpone made: Mascarpone is made from cow’s milk cream that has been thickened, or coagulated, with the addition of an acidic element such as lemon juice. It’s then heated, strained, and chilled to a thick but spreadable consistency.
Use mascarpone for these dishes: Mascarpone is most famously used in tiramisu but doubles as a rich substitute for whipped or double cream (or works in combination with the two, like in this chocolate-chip icebox cake recipe). Thanks to its high fat content, it can simply be spooned over simple desserts and pairs well on its own with ripe fruit.
Tasting notes: Mozzarella is arguably the most popular of all of the Italian cheeses (though our good friend Parmesan might beg to differ). Traditionally mozzarella was made out of buffalo milk, but today many producers opt for less expensive cow’s milk. The original is creamier and lighter than the cow’s milk variants, so if you really want to treat your guests (or yourself), go for ‘Mozzarella di Bufala.’
Types of mozzarella: There are many kinds of mozzarella on the market. ‘Bocconcini’ for instance, are bite-sized balls of mozzarella which are perfect for antipasti plates and salads. Firm blocks of mozzarella and shredded mozzarella are considered low-moisture, or aged, mozzarella. These are the kinds most often used for pizzas as they melt better than the fresh stuff and don’t release any liquid during the melting process.
How mozzarella is made: Mozzarella cheese is manufactured through the ‘filata’ or stretched-curd procedure, in which the cheese is rested and kneaded until it turns into a soft and fibrous mass that is then formed into balls or braids. Fresh mozzarella is usually sold in a brine which helps preserve its freshness and prevent them from drying out.
Use mozzarella for these dishes: Beloved mozzarella shows up in everything from Italian salads to molten cores of arancini, and of course, as the pièce de résistance topping on practically all pizzas.
Tasting notes: Ricotta is arguably the most popular soft cheese in Italy. The curd-style cheese is crumbly in texture with a rich, creamy flavor.
How ricotta is made: When the milk protein that is left over from cheese-making (known as whey) is heated and the liquid strained from the curds, you get ricotta—meaning ‘re-cooked.’ In Italy it can be made from cow’s, goat’s, sheep’s, or buffalo milk, but ricotta made from cow’s milk is the most easily and commonly found around the globe.
Types of ricotta: As well as the types of ricotta made with different types of milk, in regions of Italy you can also find baked ricotta (ricotta infornata), which has a dark crust and is served as an antipasto, smoked ricotta which takes on woody notes, and firm salted ricotta (ricotta salata) which is excellent grated onto pasta dishes, such as Sicilian pasta alla norma—recipe below!
Use ricotta for these dishes: Its creamy flavor makes it perfect for sweet and savory dishes alike—you’ll find it used in gelato, as the traditional filling for sweet cannoli, as the savory filling in cannelloni, ravioli, gnudi, or malfatti (a gnocchi-like pasta), or simply dolloped onto bowls of pasta. It's also great on crostini—try a peperonata with ricotta crostini or these whipped ricotta and balsamic cherry toasts.
Tasting notes: Stracciatella is a creamy fresh cheese that is somewhere between curd and liquid in texture. You might know it better as the soft creamy center of burrata. It’s also perhaps the most mispronounced of the Italian cheeses, with the same name as the completely unrelated chocolate-y gelato flavor, so now’s the time for practice: ‘stra-chia-tella’. Other famous spreadable Italian cheeses worth noting are Stracchino and Robiola.
How stracciatella is made: Stemming from the word for ‘shredded’, stracciatella is made by shredding fresh mozzarella into strings and mixing it with cream. In Puglia in the south of Italy, the cheese is traditionally made with buffalo milk.
Use stracciatella for these dishes: Stracciatella is excellent served as a spreadable cheese (just spoon it into a bowl and drizzle with olive oil, followed by a shake of salt and pepper) or dolloped onto pizza fresh out of the oven.
Semi-soft Italian cheeses
Tasting notes: Fontina is a semi-soft cheese that originates from the north Italian Aosta valley. It has many bubbly holes in it and is creamy in flavor with aged, nutty notes to it.
How Fontina is made: To be classified as an Aostan Fontina, the cheese must be made from milk from a single milking to which rennet is later added. It’s then heated, strained, salted, and poured into molds to age for anywhere from 3 to 10 months. You can find both young and mature Fontina on the market.
Use Fontina for these dishes: Young Fontina cheese is great for fondue—however both the young and ages varieties melt very well, so it’s well worth sliding a few slices into a panini or your next grilled cheese sandwich. It’s also often served with truffles on pasta.
Tasting notes: Pungent, blue-veined Gorgonzola is one of the most popular blue cheeses on the planet, up there with French Roquefort. It’s firmer when refrigerated but will turn oozy at room temperature—which is always the recommended temperature for your cheese platter.
How Gorgonzola is made: Gorgonzola is made from whole milk. Special bacteria and spores are added and agitated during the aging process to create its uniquely pungent flavor and striking blue marbling. There are two different aging processes: Gorgonzola dolce is more mild and creamy in flavor, while Gorgonzola picante has been aged for a longer period of time and is therefore very pungent in flavor.
Use Gorgonzola for these dishes: Gorgonzola adds a tangy kick to creamy pasta and gnocchi sauces, as well as risottos, and almost always finds its way into or on anything ‘four-cheese.’
Tasting notes: Pear-shaped scamorza is often thought of as a relative of mozzarella—it’s creamy but firm and is often smoked. You might mistake the Southern Italian cheese caciocavallo for scamorza, however its interior is softer and more bubbly—especially the young Sicilian Ragusano cheese.
How scamorza made: This cheese goes through a similar production process to mozzarella, but is hung on a string to age, which is how it gets its traditional shape and golden skin. After 2 weeks it is sold as is, or smoked—and with its woody, creamy flavor, it’s our favorite of the two
Use scamorza for these dishes: You can simply replace firm mozzarella with smoked scamorza in recipes for added depth. Try it out on our portobello burger or in a simple frittata!
Tasting notes: Hailing from Lombardy in the North of Italy, Taleggio has a similar consistency to oozy Camembert at room temperature. Don’t be put off by its pungent smell, as the creamy semi-soft cheese tastes milder than you’d think.
How Taleggio is made: Traditionally, Taleggio is made from the curd of heated cow’s milk (to which cultures and rennet are added) and is aged in a cave and washed once a week with salty sea water. This helps develop its signature pale pink rind and prevents mold from forming.
Use Taleggio for these dishes: Like Fontina, Taleggio melts really well and adds richness to risottos, creamy polenta, or even pizzas. Swap it out for cheddar in our recipe for creamy polenta.
Hard Italian cheeses
10. Grana Padano
Tasting notes: Grana Padano may look like Parmesan and yes, it’s also a hard-cheese made from cow’s milk. However, it needs only to age for a minimum of 9 months, resulting in a milder and softer cheese than Parmesan.
How Grana Padano is made: Grana Padano can be made all year round, but the quality can vary depending on the season it’s produced. Unlike Parmesan, milder Grana Padano is made entirely from skimmed milk. Due to its simpler production rules, it is cheaper in price and therefore purchased more often than expensive Parmigiano Reggiano.
Use Grana Padano for these dishes: Grana Padano can be used in any recipe in place of Parmesan. Try these recipes for inspiration:
11. Parmesan (or Parmigiano Reggiano)
Tasting notes: Italy’s most famous cheese is known as ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ or even as the ‘king of cheeses’ in its home country. It has been around in the north of Italy since the Middle Ages. Just like a good Italian wine, this hard cheese gets more intense in flavor the longer it ages. Crumbly, salty, and savory, Parmesan is a classic example of the fifth taste—umami.
How Parmesan is made: Parmesan can legally only be made between April and November, with milk from grass-fed cows. It’s made from the curds from a mixture of whole and skimmed milk and is salt brined for approx. 25 days. While a young Parmesan has to age for at least 12 months, there are Parmesans that age for up to 6 years!
Use Parmesan for these dishes: We love Parmesan on practically everything (see our article on 11 ingenious ways to use Parmesan), but it tastes especially good when freshly grated for a homemade pesto or as the finishing touch to pasta, gnocchi, and salads.
Tasting notes: Pecorino is a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk with flavors that range fro nutty to salty, savory to tangy, or a combination of all, depending on how long it’s aged. There are 6 main regional variants, with the most famous being Pecorino Romano and Pecorino Sardo from Sardinia.
How Pecorino is made: Pecorino is made all over Italy, each with it’s own unique flavor and slightly different process. Most use lamb rennet, unlike the most commonly used cow’s or calf’s rennet. They are typically aged for about 8 months, but can also be sold and served ‘fresco’ or ‘semi-stagionato’ for a softer texture and milder, creamier flavor.
Use Pecorino for these dishes: The classic Roman dishes cacio e pepe and carbonara are traditionally made with this favorite cheese of the ‘Eternal City.’
Tasting notes: Provolone is a semi-hard cheese with notes ranging from creamy, nutty, waxy, smoky to tangy. Young provolone dolce is mild in flavor while provolone picante is much sharper
How provolone is made: Provolone is an aged, stretched-curd cheese made from cow’s milk. Pale white ‘provolone dolce’ is the youngest variety and is aged for around four months, whereas ‘provolone piccante’ can be aged up to three years.
Use provolone in these recipes: Provolone is a great all-rounder. It’s fantastic fresh in Italian deli-style sandwiches or put to use for its great melting quality, so use it in place of any other grated cheese in a tart, quiche, pie, meat stuffings—or a simple grilled cheese sandwich.
Let us know your favorite ways to use Italian cheese in the comments—or send us in any lingering questions!
Published on July 22, 2018