The mozzarella oozing off your pizza is just the beginning when it comes to sampling the cheeses of Italy. Parmesan, ricotta, mascarpone — this is the place where all these delicious options originate, and where you can taste them at the height of their local flavor. Cheese is such an important part of Italy's culinary tradition that after the global economic crisis hit in 2008, the government created a “cheese industry bailout plan” to buy 100,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and donate them to charity.
The subtle textures and flavors of various cheeses are taken as seriously by Italian producers as are the variations in local wines. You could try fifteen types of parmesan, for instance, or a dozen styles of provolone, and never enjoy the exact same flavor twice. The art of cheese making in this part of the world dates back to the Roman Empire, and it is estimated that there are some 400 different cheese variations made within Italy's modern borders. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular cheeses that you might want to sample during your vacation in Italy.
Fontina Val d'Aosta, often served during the dessert course, is also the primary ingredient in fonduta, or cheese fondue.
Gorgonzola, which takes its name from a town near Milan, is often an ingredient in risotto and can make a tasty topping for salads or pizza.
Mascarpone, a specialty of the Lombardy region, is the main ingredient in the popular dessert tiramisu. Sometimes, you can also find it in risotto dishes.
Mozzarella is a generic term for several kinds of Italian cheeses. Mozzarella di bufala is made from water buffalo milk, while mozzarella fior di latte is made from cow's milk. The mozzarella di bufala from the Campania region is generally considered the best, and is often enjoyed in a caprese salad mixed with slices of tomatoes.
Parmigiano, known in the United States as parmesan, is named after the town of Parma and by law in Italy must come from the Parmigiano-Reggiano region.
Pecorino, all styles of which are made from sheep's milk, is a hard cheese often found in pasta dishes on the Italian island of Sardinia.
Provolone, which originated in southern Italy, is produced mainly in the Lombardia and Veneto regions, making it ultra-fresh from sandwich vendors in Venice.
Ricotta, often used in dishes such as American lasagna, is often used in Italian desserts such as cheesecake and cannoli. It is sometimes served on its own as a dessert, perhaps covered in chocolate shavings.
Romano, named after the city of Rome, is a hard cheese typically served grated over a pasta or other dish. Purists say romano must be made from sheep's milk, though the romano you have likely tried in the United States probably came from cow's milk.
Note that in many parts of Italy, you will be served cheeses that are unpasteurized. United States law, since 1944, has required that all soft-milk cheeses — even those imported from places such as Italy — must be aged at least sixty days to avoid spreading diseases such as salmonella. The rules are different in Italy, and while the cheeses are often said to taste better if left unpasteurized, out-breaks do occasionally occur. Keep an eye on the local media to ensure your own safety depending on when and where you do your own cheese tasting.