photo courtesy Formaggi Brunelli
The map of Italy below shows the various regions. Our selection of the top Italian cheeses focuses on Lombardy (Lombardia), Piedmont (Piemonte), Valle D'Aosta, Apulia (Puglia), Emilia-Romagna, Campania, Sardinia (Sardegna), Sicily (Sicilia) and Tuscany (Toscana) - all of which produce outstanding regional, handcrafted cheeses.
Italy is really a vast group of localities stitched together over the
centuries into its present national form. After all, it wasn't until the
late 19th century that Italy was unified as a
country from its earlier medieval city-states. As a result, Italians
have always retained a very strong sense of local and regional identity.
Geographic and cultural distinctions tend to
keep Italians loyal to family, town, region ... with the nation a
distant last. This is very unlike France where the people have a very
strong sense of national pride. So when it comes to
the cheeses of Italy, here again there is fierce loyalty, region by
region, to traditional regional cuisines and regional specialty cheeses.
Go into a small cheese shop in a small town in Lombardy for example,
and you will find all the cheeses made in Lombardy, but it is unlikely
you will find a cheese from Tuscany or Campania.
Just as London has Neal's Yard Dairy (a MUST to visit for British cheeses), so in Italy there is the equivalent called Peck's La Casa del Formaggio in Milan.
Now owned by the Stoppani family, Peck has 6 stores in Milan featuring all different specialties, but its main cheese shop is on Via Speronari. It is an absolute paradise for cheese lovers! Featuring as many as 600 cheeses (not all different cheeses, but rather a range of cheese varieties, produced by many different cheesemakers), this store does a huge volume of business. All the names, all the shapes, all the sizes, all the varieties are there for you to sample.
When shopping for Italian cheese, whether here in the U.S. or in Italy, it helps to know a few Italian words which will usually appear on the labels of authentic, handcrafted and name-protected (D.O.P. - Denominazione di Origine Protetta).
First, the words for the type of milk the cheese is made from -
Vacca - Cow
Pecora - Sheep
Capra - Goat
Bufala - Buffalo
Latte Mista - Mixed Milk Sources
Second, an Italian cheese may be aged or ripened for different time periods. In fact, a young Ragusano will be so different from a more aged Ragusano as to almost make them two different cheeses! So you will want to know what age of cheese you are buying. Here is your brief lesson -
Fresco - Fresh
Tenero - Tender
Dolce - Sweet
Duro - Hard
Stagionato - Seasoned, Aged, Mature
Nuovo - 1 year of aging
Vecchio - Old (2 years of aging)
Stravecchio - Extra Old (3 years of aging)
Okay - Here we go. My list of 14 top Italian Cheeses you simply must try!
Bra (Tenero and Duro)
Fontina Val D'Aosta
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana
Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan)
Robiolo di Roccaverano
See the links below to learn more about these cheeses!
You can also find some helpful suggestions about Pairing Italian Cheeses with Wine by clicking on that link below.
When you travel to Italy, be sure to treat yourself by trying the local cheese specialities, wherever you may be in the country. You simply cannot go wrong and you will be honoring the local population, local cheesemakers and local restaurateurs. Ask any hundred people to list their favorite ten or twenty cheeses from Italy and the lists will all be different.
Try these delicious recipes using Italian Cheeses
Asparagus with Sausage and Parmesan Fondue Recipe
Culatello Risotto in a Parmesan Basket Recipe
Gorgonzola Focaccia Sandwich Recipe
Gorgonzola Lasagne Recipe
Gorgonzola Risotto with Scallops Recipe
Parmesan and Asparagus Tart Recipe
Ratatouille with Squacquerone Cheese Recipe
Sformato with Fossa Cheese Fondue Recipe
Squacquerone Quiche with Pan-fried Asparagus and Guanciale Recipe
Turkey Stuffed with Gorgonzola Recipe