Italian Cheeses Come Into Their Own

Food & Drink

Scusi! Move over, France because Italy is coming after your cheese lovers!

Italian cheese used to be somewhat of an obscurity—or defined only by its most popular entrants on the international market: Parmesan and mozzarella. Fine cheeses and those produced by local makers were closely held secrets or the domain of established restaurants, says New York City based Chef Carlo Bigi. Shockingly, the Italians—not known to be short on confidence—fell short when it came to cheese.

“Italians have great, unique products, but they have always underrated them relative to other countries,” Chef Bigi said, citing other European success stories—French cheese and wine, Swiss chocolate and even Portugal’s pata negra (an acorn-fed Iberian ham that is a particular delicacy in the Alentejo).

But with the advent of the Slow Food movement and epicurean empires such as Eataly that put artisanal Italian foods up front and center, the awareness outside Italy has grown, combined with renewed marketing savvy. “Italy in the last years has done a better job improving their export,” Bigi said.

Still, importing all of Italian’s cheesy delights is not easy. They have to meet stringent regulations, and the cost of importing is prohibitive, almost guaranteeing some of the most interesting, hyper-local artisanal cheeses never make it to the US market, says cheese expert Laura Werlin, the James Beard award-winning author of six books on the subject.

And that’s too bad she says because Italy is full of cheeses that “really speak to the places they’re made: substantial and satisfying and very compelling because they have a lot of texture and versatility.”

Enter the AOP Agriform project, an association of producer organizations that partners with dairy cooperatives in northeastern Italy that promotes regional cheeses made from the milk of its member farmers. When wanted a platform in the New York market to introduce its signature cheeses, it called upon the northern-Italian-born Bigi to develop pairings around six its popular PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses. It was a project the chef could get behind.

“What is lovely about Italian cheeses, there is a bit of our culture and every culture in them …. there is a recipe for every one,” said Bigi, who after stints at Gemma Bowery Hotel’s Italian Trattoria, Il Buco Alimentari and Sant Ambroeus Restaurant, is now executive chef at Westchester County’s Sleepy Hollow Country Club.

Werlin agrees. “There’s something for everyone when it comes to Italian cheese,” she said, adding, “People are expanding their food knowledge overall and cheese falls in step with that.” The proliferation of specialty cheese shops and departments within supermarkets, and education, makes it all that much easier to explore cheeses from off the beaten path, she says.

Here are six to try with Chef Bigi’s pairings, showing the diversity of these cheeses to partner with an international palate.

“All of these cheeses are what we can call table cheeses,” said chef Bigi. “The more aged ones create a more memorable experience, Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are great shaved on pasta and risottos, while the younger Montasio and Asiago are good for a light appetizer or sandwiches.”

Asiago Fresco PDO. This fresh, young table cheese is easy melting, versatile and works well as a light appetizer or on sandwiches (great with scrambled eggs). When young (30-50 days), it features a buttery, tangy lactic flavor profile that becomes more floral with age. Chef Bigi says he likes to cook with this cheese. Chef’s pairing: Spicy green grape and shiso leaves.

Asiago Stagionato PDO . A smooth, compact Alpine cheese made from cow’s milk has four levels of aging, with the stravecchio the oldest (15 months) and featuring intense, rich sweet-nut flavors. Pair with chutneys, honey, jams. Chef’s pairing: Chestnut honey and roasted hazelnuts.

Grana Padano PDO. Often takes a back seat to Parmesan, but it shouldn’t. Made from semi-skimmed cows’ milk, this fine-grained cheese has a hard, finely granular texture, is aged for up to 16 months and, like wine, has a “Riserva” version with longer aging  Good shaved with pasta or risotto, fig and honey or grated over a Brussel sprout salad. Widely produced from the Veneto to Emilia Romagna. Chef’s pairing: Pumpkin mostarda (mustard) and toasted seeds.

Montasio PDO. From the northeastern region of Alto Adige, this has been made by monks since 1200, with up to 18 months of aging. More buttery cheese, with grainy texture, evened out by the acidity of the cranberry compote he made. Very adaptable as an appetizer, in a fondue or a frittata, it can be breaded and fried. Chef’s pairing: Port wine cranberry compote and crispy kale.

Parmigiano Reggiano PDO. “Parm is in every Italian fridge, like cheddar is in every American fridge,” says the chef, and he says with its grainy texture—the most of the six—and concentrated nuttiness, a little Parmesan goes a long way. Tossed with pasta and olive oil, he says, you don’t need much more for a meal. Add Lambrusco, the lightly fizzy red wine from the nearby Emilia-Romagna region or a white like Soave that works with the saltiness of the cheese. Chef’s pairing: Aged Modena balsamic and Asian pear.

Piave PDO. From the Belluno area in the foothills of the Dolomite mountains, Piave has five variously aged versions. The young (fresco) is delicate with neutral lactic flavors, and as the rinds become thicker and firmer with age, the flavor intensifies. Piave Vecchio Riserva, the oldest at more than 18 months, is uber-small production and features a deep-yellow color and a strong nutty, sweet character. Chef’s pairing: red onion ginger chutney and Marcona almonds.

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