Italy is the 3rd largest cheese producer in the EU and the 4th largest in the world. There are over 2500 varieties of traditional Italian cheese and out of these around 300 types of cheese come under Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)—an agriculture product designation given by the EU to keep the production exclusivity of the cheese intact. Yes, even three hundred is a staggering number, and 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. When you’re cooking Italian, you round up the usual suspects: Parmesan, mozzarella, provolone — the country’s cheeses we have come to know and adore. Yet there are dozens of other cheeses popular in Italy that remain under the radar in the U.S. Here’s our guide, sorted by texture (soft, semi-soft, or hard).
Soft Italian cheeses
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. 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.
This thick cheese from Lombardy claims just two ingredients: cream, and citric acid. That accounts for its whipped texture and mild, complementary flavor. You’ll see mascarpone in both savory and sweet dishes, from risotto to tiramisù—or even just served with strawberries for a sweet summer dish. 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.
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.
The secret behind mozzarella’s soft, milky cheese is the spinning and cutting process used in its production—which is where it gets its name from (in Neapolitan dialect, mozzare means “to cut”). The most popular varieties include buffalo mozzarella, where mozzarella is made from water buffalo’s milk for a creamy texture. There’s also fior di latte, made from fresh cow’s milk; mozzarella affumicata, known for its savory and smoked flavor; and burrata, a pouch made from mozzarella, filled with cream and tied with a knot. ‘Bocconcini’ for instance, are bite-sized balls of mozzarella which are perfect for antipasti plates and salads. 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.No matter what variety you try, if you’re tasting the authentic versions, they’re sure to be delicious!
Try it in: Campania and southern Lazio, including Naples.
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.
Perhaps Italy’s most versatile cheese, ricotta can be made from sheep, goat, buffalo and cow’s milk but ricotta made from cow’s milk is the most easily and commonly found around the globe. Slightly “cooked” with a soft and grainy texture, this mild cheese can be enjoyed even by those with a milk allergy—the production process uses byproducts after casein has been removed. 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.’ You’ll find ricotta in desserts like cannoli or savory pasta dishes with ricotta salata (smoked ricotta with a hard texture and salty flavor). 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.
Try it in: You can try it across Italy, especially in Rome and Naples, but we especially like the ricotta salata in Sicily.
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.
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. 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
One of the main ingredients of fonduta (fondue), a comfort food for the cold mountain weather, Fontina is a cow’s-milk cheese with a semi-soft texture and strong, nutty flavor. Thanks to its depiction in a 13th-century fresco castle on the border of Italy, France and Switzerland (where the cheese is made), we know Europeans have been enjoying these cheese for, well, millennia! Fontina is a semi-soft cheese that originates from the north Italian Aosta valley. 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. The cheese is made in several other places outside Italy such as Quebec, Sweden, Argentina, the US, Denmark but the original pungent and intense-flavored Fontina comes from Aosta Valley.
Try it in: The Valle d’Aosta, the Alps-ridden border region of Piedmont, France, and Switzerland.
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.
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. The marble looking cheese gets its flavor from the bacteria and molds such as Penicillium glaucum and penicillium roqueforti added to the process of making it. You’ll recognize this pungent cow’s milk cheese by its blue-green veins and creamy texture. Gorgonzola dolce (“sweet gorgonzola”) has a milder taste, while gorgonzola piccante (“spicy gorgonzola”), while not exactly spicy, definitely has a sharper flavor. The beloved cheese gets its distinct flavor from the bacteria added during the production process, as well as from the perfect cold, damp conditions that accelerate the aging process. As for where Gorgonzola comes from, well, that’s still a debate—but some think it was named after the town that it was created in in the late 9th century.
Try it in: Piedmont and Lombardy, including Milan and Turin.
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.’
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. 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!
Named after the Alpine valley—Val Taleggio where it is produced, this cheese is made from both pasteurized and raw milk. 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. 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. Taleggio has been around since the Roman times, and it’s so good, even Cicero wrote about it! Fruit and spices are sometimes added to give a sweet hint of flavor.
Try it in: Lombardy and the Italian Alps.
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.
This semi-hard cheese comes from the Stelvio Valley and the province of Bolzano, located in the mountainous northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige, bordered by Austria to the north-east, which is why Stelvio is sometimes called by its German name – Stilfser. A product of the well-established cheesemaking culture of the wider Bolzano area, Stelvio or Stilfser is made with milk from cows raised on the local mountain farms. Made for hundreds of years before, it wasn’t recognized and named up until the early 1900’s. The cheese is aged for approximately 60 days, developing a semi-hard texture. It has a reddish colored rind, and an ivory colored paste. The flavor of Stelvio is rich and buttery with an intense aroma and a slightly tangy taste.
11. Montasio Cheese
Formaggio di Montasio belongs to the (great) group of alpine cheeses. These began being produced around the year 1000, as a way to preserve a perishable product, milk, for periods when food production would be scarce. Montasio itself dates back to the 13th century, when Benedictine monks started its production in the valleys of the Julian and Carnian Alps of Friuli Venezia Giulia. The place where it all began was the abbey at Moggio Udinese, to the north of the famous Altopiano di Montasio (Montasio Plateau), now used by Clarisse nuns. The name Montasio was not applied to the cheese until 1773, when the first documents reporting the name appear, also showing a fixed priced at which the cheese was to be sold, quite higher than other cheeses.
Today, Montasio is produced across all four provinces of Friuli Venezia Giulia and has obtained the DOP mark (Protected Designation of Origin): it can only be produced in the region and in parts of the Veneto. Montasio is a semi-hard cheese (aged longer it develops a harder texture), with a pale yellow to gold color (again depending on age), and a creamy texture. Made with local cow’s milk, Montasio cheese has four aging times, which will determine its characteristics and use: fresh, 60 to 120 days of aging; mezzano, 5 to 10 months of aging; aged, 10 to 18 months of aging; stravecchio, more than 18 months of aging. As you progress from fresh to aged, the color of the crust becomes darker, the consistency more crumbly and the flavor stronger, almost spicy. These different nuances of flavor make Montasio a versatile cheese, to be used in different ways: with first courses, with polenta or to enhance platters of cold cuts and cheeses. But the classic way to eat Montasio in Friuli is frico, cheese in a pan. It is made in two versions: the crunchy one (frico croccante), where the cheese is fried in its own serum and nothing else; and soft frico (frico morbido), enriched with potatoes, and sometimes onions, bacon or herbs. It was the classic meal of the woodsmen, poor but energetic. To recognize its authenticity, look at the rind: it should have the word “Montasio” written repeatedly across it.
12. Castelmagno Cheese
Castelmagno, where the name of the cheese comes from, is a very small village with not more than 90 inhabitants, located in the highest point of Grana Valley and beyond the cheese, it is also famous for the beautiful Sanctuary called San Magno that dates back to the fifteenth century and lies at 1761 meters. Considered to be the king of Piedmontese cheeses, produced only in Grana Valley, Cuneo, Castelmagno is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). To guarantee the authenticity of the product, it is essential that the milk utilized come from communes protected by PDO designation. This cheese has ancient origins dating back to 1277, more or less at the same time as Gorgonzola. It is named after a Roman soldier whom despite being persecuted, kept on preaching gospels and gave its name to the famous sanctuary town of Castelmagno in Grana Valley. Since then, the local cheese factories have been producing it following the ancient traditions, despite a period of low production due to the World Wars. Castelmagno is obtained by two different milkings and by processing of whole cow’s milk. Sometimes, an amount of sheep’s or goat’s milk can be added, albeit not more than 20%. It is usually produced throughout Summer and left in fresh-air rooms or natural grottos for 60 days at least, in order to age properly.
The flavor and the aroma are strong and intense. Although you can easily find it in the supermarkets when it is young, the best aromas come out after a minimum of 6-month aging, when the first traces of mold start showing up. Since it is a semi-fat and semi-hard cheese with an intense and slightly spicy aroma, Castelmagno DOP cheese is best served alone or accompanied by honey (especially basswood honey) and jams. Its aromas also get along well with rye bread and polenta, as well as with some full-bodied red wines such as Barolo and Nebbiolo. It is also excellent with sweet wines.
Use for Castelmagno: mainly used as a fondue to be served with bread, pasta, polenta, carpaccio, meat, and, above all, gnocchi (small dumplings made from potato), nevertheless, the king of the Castelmagno-based dishes is Risotto!
Hard Italian cheeses
13. Grana Padano
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. 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.
14. Parmigiano Reggiano
Commonly referred to as “parmesan” in English, Parmigiano Reggiano, like wine, gets better with age. Italians are passionate about this flavorful, cow’s milk cheese; only the finest quality gets the DOP seal of approval after the standard 12-month inspection, while all other rinds are branded with lines to indicate the lesser quality. We can thank the Benedictine monks from the 13th century for this long-aged cheese. Parmigiano belongs to the Grana (hard cheese) family, along with grana padano. (Grana padano has a similar taste, but is produced in Lombardy, and its producers provide fewer controls over the cows’ diets—all why Parmigiano Reggiano is the “finer,” more expensive cheese). You’ll find it either eaten alone or grated over certain pastas across the country. Just like a good Italian wine, this hard cheese gets more intense in flavor the longer it ages. 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!
Try it in: Like the other beloved cheeses listed here, except even more so, Parmigiano Reggiano is available across Italy. But you’ll find the most varieties closest to the source, especially in Parmigiano-producing Emilia-Romagna.
Parmigiano Reggiano solo di Bruna: It’s still the much-loved Parmigiano Reggiano, but made with only the milk of Swiss Brown cows (hence the “Solo di Bruna”), which is how Parm was made in the Middle Ages. This breed of cow has a higher casein (milk protein) content in its milk, which leads to a creamier, toastier cheese and flavors reminiscent of toffee and hazelnuts. Where there are several hundred producers of our dear Parmigiano Reggiano, there are only four Solo di Bruna producers. A wonderfully snackable, elegant treasure.
Use Parmesan for these dishes: We love Parmesan on practically everything, but it tastes especially good when freshly grated for a homemade pesto or as the finishing touch to pasta, gnocchi, and salads.
15. Pecorino, Classic Italian Sheep’s Milk Cheese
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. There are two major kinds of the sheep’s milk cheese known as Pecorino in Italy.
Young pecorino is a mild, slightly nutty cheese that becomes firmer and sharper with age while gaining a flaky texture. Young pecorino is not suited for grating, and though it can be used as an ingredient, it’s best on its own, in a platter of cheeses or at the end of a meal, perhaps with a succulent pear. Much of this kind of pecorino is made either on the island of Sardinia, or in Tuscany, by Sardinian shepherds who came to the mainland in the ’50s and ’60s, and as a result, is generally labeled pecorino sardo or pecorino toscano.
Then there’s aged Pecorino Romano, which is saltier and firmer; it’s an excellent grating cheese. Pecorino romano is considered to be the highest quality around, with a salty bite and holds the distinction of one of the oldest cheeses of Italy with a history of 2000 years. The name is derived from the Italian word pecora meaning sheep and romano does not refer to Rome but to the ancient Romans.
Of course, cheese comes from milk, and it’s important too. Pecorino Romano isn’t simply made from sheep’s milk but from the milk of sheep that have grazed in pastures with specific combinations of grasses that impart specific flavors to their milk. And this brings us to why Pecorino Romano is made in the Tuscan Maremma and Sardinia, as well as around Rome. Its flavor is quite distinctive and it’s an important ingredient in many southern Italian dishes. Those who left the south to seek better fortune abroad during the last decades of the 1800s and the early 1900s were forced to leave almost everything behind, but not their tastes. As soon as they settled they began to cook, and one of the ingredients they needed most was Pecorino Romano. There was no way to make it locally (different climate and forage mean a different cheese, even if the production technique is the same), but what was made in Lazio kept very well. By 1911, 7,500 tons were being sent annually to North America alone. The cheese makers couldn’t meet this demand with the flocks in Lazio – not all pastures give the proper milk – so they searched elsewhere for pastures that would work, finding them in southern Tuscany and Sardinia. Currently, about 20,000 tons of Pecorino Romano are exported every year, 90% of which goes to North America.
Pecorino brigantaccio: Small farmstead production makes pecorino brigantaccio a hard-to-find cheese in the States, though happily it’s available at both Eataly Chicago and Caputo Cheese Markets. “Pair this strong and lusty cheese with montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a slightly chilled pecorino (white wine from Abruzzo).” recommends Malzahn. “Grating this cheese atop pasta dishes spiked with pepperoncino is a real game changer.”
Pepato: If you love pecorino Romano, you’ll love pepato, a sheep’s milk cheese with the added oomph of cracked peppercorns. Use it in place of pecorino Romano for a new take on the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe.
Try it in: Lazio, Sardinia, Sicily, and Tuscany, including Rome.
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.’ It works especially well with spicy pasta sauces, such as amatriciana or arrabbiata. Remember, if you add it to a recipe that doesn’t call for it, to adjust the seasoning in the recipe, because Pecorino is salty.
This full-fat, semi-hard cheese, made across northern Italy and in Campania, can be easily spotted in a store or market by its large size, molded into shapes like pears and sausages with cords. Try provolone dolce for a milder taste (due to its young age) or provolone piccante for a more developed, piquant flavor. 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.
Try it in: Naples (production still takes place near provolone’s birthplace in the mountains near Mount Vesuvius), as well as various areas in northern Italy.
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.
17. Asiago Cheese
If you find a “product of the mountains” stamp on an Asiago cheese, it means that it was produced at an altitude of more than 600 meters (1,968 feet)! Made from cow’s milk and from the regions of Trentino and the Veneto, this cheese can be found either fresh (called Asiago Pressato), for its smoothest, sweetest taste. For a bolder flavor, try the aged version (Asiago d’allevo). Want the most intense taste? Go for stravecchio, which is aged for up to two years.
Try it in: Trentino and the Veneto, including Venice, Verona, and Trento.
Lesser-known cheeses that deserve a mention
Formai de mut: Made from the raw milk of cows that graze Alpine valleys, “formai de mut” translates to “mountain cheese” in the dialect of Italy’s northern Lombardy region. Dense and smooth with a savory flavor and notes of grass, formai de mut is cooked and pressed and thus comes complete with the “eyes” — aka holes — often found in more familiar Alpine-style cheeses. Pair it with a bock beer or, for dessert, with a sweet wine such as moscato di scanzo. Add it to risottos and fondues to sharpen things up a bit.
La Tur: This soft-ripened, wrinkly cheese is made from a creamy blend of cow, sheep and goat milks. Though it hails from the Piemonte region, rich, creamy La Tur is a member of the classically French Brie family. This stinkier cousin is best served spread on a crusty loaf of bread topped with fig jam or honey.
Ubriaco: Ubriaco translates to “drunk,” which describes well this affectionately named cow’s milk cheese that is aged for about two months in barrels of prosecco and pomace, the leftover grape skins, seeds and stems from winemaking. As it ages, it develops a texture similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cut it into small irregular chunks or ultra-thin slivers and serve with a glass of prosecco, the sparkling wine that gave it its floral aroma.
Robiola: Robiola’s bloomy, straw-colored rind conceals a soft-ripened sheep and cow milk cheese that bursts with earthy notes. It’s one of Italy’s oldest cheeses and was likely named after it’s city of origin, Robbio, a northern Italian town in the Lombardy region. Let it sit out on the counter for 30 minutes prior to cutting, and let the oozing begin. Spread on a slice of crusty Italian bread, and top with smoked salmon.
Caciocavallo: Produced from the milk of cows that graze on Mediterranean pasture, the bell-shaped caciocavallo boasts complex aromas of anise and wild fennel. The cheese is hand-formed, salt brined, then looped with a string around its neck and hung up to age in pairs. Similar to its sisters, mozzarella, provolone and scamorza, caciocavello is a traditional pasta filata (stretched curd cheese). Serve uniform slices of caciocavallo and pear, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar — aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena — for a rich, autumnal primo piatto.
Quadrello di bufala: This elegant washed-rind cheese is an ideal replacement for taleggio on a classic Italian cheese board. “It stands up against blues while not getting in the way of the milder cheeses. Pair up with some bubbles to add to the party on your palate.” Stir into polenta for richness and a bolder flavor.
Bettelmatt has been known and loved since as early as the 13th century, when it was used to pay rent or taxes. Now, it’s made by only eight producers in the Italian Ossola mountains, and only from May to September, when the cows can graze on the lush mountain pastures. It’s said that cheese made in these mountains has an impossible-to-replicate flavor due to a wild mountain herb called mottolina that is unique to the region. Tricky to find, but not at all tricky to enjoy, Bettelmatt has flavor notes of alpine meadows, cashew butter, and egg custard. With only about 3,000 wheels made a year, savor it if you can get it!
Weinkase Lagrein: Despite its German-sounding name, Weinkase Lagrein hails from South Tyrol, Italy, near the Austrian border. This semi-soft cheese is soaked in Lagrein wine with herbs, garlic, and pepper for five days, resulting in a cheese that delightfully tastes a whole lot like salami. Make sure to eat the rind, which has the strongest concentration of salami-like flavor.
Capra Sarda: Hailing from the island of Sardinia, where there are supposedly more sheep than people, Capra Sarda is a semi-hard pecorino-style cheese, but made with goat’s milk. It’s salty, snackable, and mineral-driven, with notes of caramel. It’s equally delightful on a cheese board as it is grated over pasta or salad.
Castelrosso: Imagine that you made a big wheel of cow’s milk feta and grew a rind on it, which slowly ripened the feta, creating different flavors and textures throughout the wheel. That’s basically Castelrosso, hailing from Piedmont. Its middle crumbles like your favorite feta, but with more mushroom, grassy flavors. The ripest part of the cheese, a quarter-inch layer between the rind and middle called the cream line, has a pudgier texture and earthier flavors.