Discover the Delights of Italian Cheese: A Comprehensive Guide

Italian Cheese selection

Italy produces approximately 600 different types of cheeses, and some of their most famous Italian cheeses date back centuries, or even millennia years in the case of Pecorino Romano, and each region in Italy has its own local cheese that represents the local farming heritage and culture.

The process for making Italian cheeses has remained essentially unchanged over hundreds if not thousands of years and many are still ripened, according to type, in rocky caves or dry airy wood or stone huts. The different types of cheeses have grown in number in recent years, meaning that now it is more worthwhile than ever to explore the wide variety of diverse flavours offered by Italian cheese makers.

The Romans enjoyed a surprising number of cheeses originating from various Italian provinces and were amongst the first people to introduce hard cheeses throughout Europe. Roman banquets were not complete without an assortment of cheeses, from hard to soft and spiced with coriander or pepper, to mountain cheeses cured in oil.

Romans enjoyed eating bread and cheese during meals
Romans enjoyed eating bread and cheese during meals

Exquisite recipes from the Roman period survive, most notably from a recipe book written by Apicius, as well as manuscripts by Virgil, Pliny and Varro who recorded the Romans breeding goats and sheep for the preparation of various cheeses. Along with rations of cereals, lard and half a litre of wine, Roman legionnaires were supplied with Pecorino Romano for their daily marches, due to its long shelf-life.

In the Middle Ages, cheese made from cow’s milk also became crucial to Italy’s food and culture. Approximately 1000 years ago, Cistercian monks living in the lush Po Valley of Northern Italy created a cow’s milk cheese recipe called Grana using extra milk that they produced. Today known as Grana Padano, it is believed to have first been made in 1135 at the Abbey of Chiaravalle, and the method used to make it has hardly changed from when it was produced by monks centuries ago.

Another important and well-documented Italian cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano has travelled the world and enhanced food and culture everywhere. Its history dates to 13th century Italy, and today Italian cheesemakers have remained faithful to its unique flavour and traditional crafting process. Parmigiano Reggiano had such a lofty status that the famous English diarist Samuel Pepys buried his wheel of cheese in the ground with his wine and other valuables when he saw the Great London fire in 1666. Considering wheels of cheese during this time usually weighed about 84 lbs, and could even weigh as much as 200 lbs, Pepys must have dug quite a large hole!

Cheese has been an integral part of the Italian lifestyle even before the Romans, who were responsible for introducing hard cheeses to many European countries. The depth and breadth of the varieties produced in the peninsula, such as cow, sheep, goat and buffalo, is unrivalled in any other country, except perhaps France.

With cheese-making traditions going back more than 2,000 years, it is little wonder that Italy is one of the world’s leading cheese producers. Although there are hundreds of different varieties produced, only 35 have the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP). The Italian word for cheese, formaggio, derives from the word “forma” – a reference to the small wicker baskets in which cheeses were left to dry, a tradition that continues to this day.

Blessed with lush pastures, hundreds of small dairy farms and centuries-old cheese-making traditions, the Veneto is a paradise for cheese lovers. Such is the quality of the cheeses made in the region, that several varieties carry the esteemed DOP. Cow, sheep and goat’s milk are used for the production of cheeses in the Veneto and in Spring, large herds of cows and endless flocks of sheep are moved from the Venetian plains to the mountains in the north of the region, where they can spend the warmer months peacefully grazing on its lush grasses and herbs. Later in the summer, and in the early fall, the herds and flocks are brought back down from the mountains to the plains.

This centuries-old process of seasonal moving of livestock, known as the transumanza, is a period of celebration for cheese-makers. In addition, large cheese festivals take place every year in the region, during which producers from the Veneto– as well as throughout Italy – show off hundreds of varieties of their cheeses to the public.

While the oldest known cheese produced in Italy is Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s milk cheese which, legend has it, Romulus nurtured himself with when he founded Rome, the most famous of all Italian cheeses is the golden yellow Parmigiano Reggiano. The city of Parma proudly boasts that the cheese can be traced to the 13th and 14th centuries. As an indication of how highly esteemed Parmigiano Reggiano was during that time, the poet Francesco Maria Grapaldi wrote that it was “the noble fruit of the milk of Parma”. This noble fruit, a huge, thick and golden yellow wheel of the finest hard cheese, is either eaten in small pieces or is freshly grated over home-made pasta dishes.

Italian Cheese - Pecorino Romano
Pecorino Romano is also enjoyed on its own or paired with fruit and wine

The Making & Ripening of Italian Cheese

Craftsmanship and the traditional methods applied for the making of various cheeses is still alive throughout Italy.

Traditionally, Italian cheeses were made in a “Castello,” or rural dairy farm, where the milk was gathered at night and again in the morning. These two successive milkings would then have been poured into large copper vats for curdling. Each vat holds 500 litres, the exact quantity necessary to produce one wheel or “form” of Parmigiano Reggiano weighing approximately 30kg (66 lbs).

The cheesemaker would only add a little whey taken from the previous day’s production to accelerate the fermentation process. Under the careful watch of the “maestro cesaro” (master cheese maker) the milk is heated to a temperature of 350ºC while continuously stirring with a large whip or “rotella”.

A dairy farm in the middle of Italy
A dairy farm in the middle of Italy

Then, the rennet, an extract from the stomachs of calves, is added. The master cheese maker subsequently splits the coagulated milk or “curd” with another tool called a “spino”, until it shows the finely granular consistency that is desired. This process requires the cheese maker’s careful attention and concentration, for if the mass should become just a bit too hot the contents will all coagulate.

The curd separates itself from the whey, and is removed by the cheesemaker and his assistants and placed in a large linen cloth. It is then poured into a circular wooden form or “fascera” that gives gives the cheese the characteristic shape of Parmigiano Reggiano. Several days later, the mass solidifies and the cheese is placed in brine to allow for salt absorption and penetration. After a brief exposure to the sun, the cheese forms are deposited onto large wooden shelves for the first ripening stage.

It is at this point that the forms must be regularly turned and dusted, requiring the supervision and care of an experienced cheesemaker. Some months later, Parmigiano Reggiano leaves the dairy farm and is transferred to large store-houses for additional maturation.

Storing Italian Cheese

Other cheeses, such as Grana Padano, are also produced in this way, although in the case of Grana Padano milk obtained throughout the year is used in the production. The only variation in the production of Italian cheeses occurs With Mozzarella when the “mozza” is added through a complex process, which creates a special doughy mixture that can be stretched. After the curdling process has been completed, the cheese curd is prepared from water buffalo milk. It must be carefully drained and dried (the drained whey is used to prepare ricotta), before the Mozzarella curd is divided into sections and pieces.

Gorgonzola acquires its unique characteristics by the addition of blue-mould fermenting agents into the fresh cheese curd. The cheese form is filled during two operations, with the cooling of the curd between each. The temperature variation in the curd promotes growth of special bacteria which assist in curing the cheese. After a few weeks the cheese is punctured by fine spores in the curd, whose micro-organisms stimulate the characteristic blue-veining which makes Gorgonzola both tangy and spicy.

Cheese may be made from either raw milk or pasteurised milk, the latter being milk which has been heated to a specific temperature for a minimum period of time to destroy disease-producing bacteria. Then, too, the cheese itself may undergo the pasteurisation process, so it is possible to use raw milk to make the cheese but then to pasteurise the cheese.

Cheese which has not been pasteurised is called natural cheese, whose production process allows the chemical interactions to occur naturally.

The curd is the white mass, or “dry matter,” produced when milk curdles. Curdling can be caused naturally by bacteria in raw milk or using a lactic acid “starter” in pasteurised milk.

Whey is the thin, watery part of milk which is separated from the curd during the process of cheese-making.

Pressed cheeses are those whose curd has been placed in a mould to shape the finished cheese. Formaggio di Capra is the term for all Italian goat’s milk cheeses (Capra being the word for goat in Italian), while pecorino (lamb) is the Italian term for ewe’s-milk cheese.

Double Cream cheeses contain between 60% and 74% butterfat content; Triple Crème cheeses contain more than 75% butterfat content. In both these cheeses, the milk has been enriched with cream.

A blue-veined cheese is one which has veins of blue or blue-green mould throughout its interior. All blueveined cheeses are cured and mould injected. They are usually strong cheeses.

Cheeses vary in the length of time required for them to reach their optimum state. The French refer to this as the affinage – the curing, ripening, and maturing of cheese. During curing, a natural cheese matures, undergoing the changes required for it to achieve its optimum flavour under specific conditions of temperature and humidity. The process often occurs in a “cave”, a natural cave or cellar for ripening and storing cheeses.

A bloomy-rind cheese is one whose rind, or crust, has become covered with a growth of white mould; specks of brown, pink or red may also be present. Bloomy-rind cheeses may be either surface-ripened or washed-rind.

Surface-ripened cheeses have been ripened due to the presence of bacteria, mould or yeast on the rind’s surface.

Washed-rind cheeses have been washed or rubbed during the ripening process with brine, whey, wine, beer, brandy, or oil to keep the cheese moist and encourage bacterial growth. Some cheeses are washed with marc, a spirit made from the distilling of grape pressings.

Another term which encompasses both surface-ripened and washed-rind cheese is the soft-ripening cheese, those which have soft bodies and which tend to be smooth and creamy.

Fresh cheeses are those which have not been cured.

The Serving of Italian Cheese

Cheese arrangements are particularly inviting when cheeses are arranged in whole pieces rather than cut into slithers or slices but in any case, common sense should prevail and cheese should be arranged according to their sizes. When cut in cake-like slices, the cheese can be arranged to point upwards, that is with the rind resting on the plate. A thick piece of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano should be placed on a different board with its accompanying almond-shaped knife alongside. With this, each individual piece or “panino” may be pried off without disturbing the other cheeses on the plate.

Generally, enough cheese knives should be made available for each type of cheese. Serve an assortment of cheeses of different styles. You might include a “hard cheese” such as Fiore Sardo or Provolone, “sliced cheeses” – Fontina, “savory cheeses” – Gorgonzola or Taleggio and a “fresh cheese” such as Mozzarella. A small separate bowl should be used for Mascarpone or Ricotta.

A nice addition to an Italian cheese platter would be a tall, narrow glass filled with celery sticks. For decoration add fresh watercress and parsley or small cucumbers cut into fan- shaped figures. Grapes can also be a suitable garnishing. On a large cheese spread, walnuts also add a nice touch.

Bread should be placed alongside in a separate basket. Rye rolls, pumpernickel, nut, rye, wheat and white breads are recommended but, not cheese-flavoured crackers, which would prevent the enjoyment of the full flavour of the cheeses.

An old Italian saying says “the kitchen and cellar go well together”, meaning that regional Italian cheeses should be served with locally produced wines.

Cheese has long been an integral part of Italian culture
Cheese has long been an integral part of Italian culture

Despite this, both sommeliers and cheese-experts have set guidelines for wine and cheese pairings, recommending that the various characteristics of the cheese served – saltiness, dryness, fat-content, origin and the type of milk used – be carefully matched with the colour, body, sugarcontent and age of the accompanying wine.

The art of cheese cutting is rooted in geometry. The original production of the cheeses follows the geometric rules regarding round, angular, conical, spherical and cylindrical shapes, then the cutting direction should adhere to these forms as well. This is visible in the figures shown below. If the cheese lover cuts the cheese according to these illustrations, the product will remain as attractive as it was in its original shape when it was made on the dairy farm.

Cheese Regions of Italy


Under the strong rays of Campania’s sun, the most aromatic vegetables and sweet fruits in Italy are grown, and in the hot southern climate nothing is more refreshing than the sweet, sour and milky taste of Mozzarella, which to this day is made with buffalo milk. The typical round or egg-shaped appearance of Mozzarella makes it readily distinguishable from other types of cheeses. Other famous cheeses from this region are Provolone and Caciocavallo.


If the land of plenty were to be found in Italy, then it most likely would be in Emilia Romagna and so it is not surprising that the most famous of all Italian cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano (the less famous “brother”), are produced in this area.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

The aristocratic cuisine of Venice and the colourful rustic cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia are based on seafood and local produce. Different types of cheeses are available here, among the best known being Montasio, Asiago Pressato and Asiago d’Allevo.

Lazio, Abruzzi and Molise

Lazio, Abruzzi and Molise are known for their hearty cooking which marries well with the sharp Pecorino Romano. The cheese has become a staple for many Roman dishes prepared with spaghetti and meat. Provatura and Scamorza belong to the same family of soft cheeses as their counterpart, Mozzarella.

Mozzarella is used in a variety of dishes, including pizzas, pastas, and salads


Best eaten when fresh, the delicious cow, sheep and goat’s milk Formagetta, Casareccio and Giuncato are produced in the Italian riviera Region of Liguria, as well as the basic ingredients for Pesto, Pecorino Fiore Sardo or Pecorino Romano.


Used mainly as a grating cheese, Grana Padano is made in the Po Valley and is called “Val Padano” in the local dialect. Gorgonzola, Provolone Dolce and Taleggio, as well as the full, creamy Mascarpone are also produced in this region. Other regional specialties include Bagos, Bitto, Branzi and Quartirolo.

Marche and Umbria

These two beautiful, yet still unknown, regions are filled with splendid landscapes and artistic treasures. The cuisine is especially praised for its grilled meats on skewers, while their excellent fresh cheeses Bagiotto and Caciofiore (Caciotta).

Piemonte and Val d’Aosta

A true paradise for gourmets, Piemonte and Val d’Aosta are rich in high quality agricultural products including meat, vegetables, fruits, game and the exquisite, delicately-scented truffles of Alba. The Italian cheeses found here are the soft, slightly sweet Fontina, as well as small mountain cheeses from Val D’Aosta, such as Toma, Tomini and Caprino. In Piemonte, the noble Gorgonzola is primarily produced in Novara while Robiola di Roccaverano is made in the provinces of Asti and Alessandria.

Gorgonzola Italian Cheese
Gorgonzola pairs well with fruits like pears, figs, and grapes, as well as with honey and walnuts. It is also commonly enjoyed with bread and crackers, accompanied by a glass of red wine.

Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria

Specially crafted cheeses, such as Burrata, come from the southern regions of the peninsula. Made from a mixture of cow and buffalo milk, to which sheep’s whey is added, the soft, warm cheese mixture is formed by the cheesemaker into a vase shaped mold. This mold is then filled with the cheese cream. Burrata is sold in reed-like leaf wrappings and must be eaten while still fresh.

Trentino Alto Adige

Excellent local specialty cheeses are produced in this splendid alpine mountain range, including  siago Nostrano Magro, Asiago Nostrano Trentino and Spressa.


Many small dairy farms pepper Tuscany’s cypress-covered hills where excellent cheeses are made from sheep’s milk; Caciotta or Cacio as well as Marzolino della Toscana. The Tuscans also produce their own Pecorino, called Pecorino Toscano or Pecorino Senese – a somewhat stronger Italian cheese than Pecorino Romano.


Shepherds still wander this island leading their flocks to pasture, from where the lightly-seasoned Pecorino originally hails. Another typical Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is Fiore Sardo with is unusual flat, double-coned shape which the Sardinians call Schiena di Mulo (mule’s back). Fiore Sardo is consumed as a table cheese when fresh and used for grating, after ripening.

Burrata Italian Cheese
Burrata is often served with tomatoes, fresh basil, and olive oil in a classic Italian dish called caprese salad

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