Down through the eons, Italian cheesemakers have shown a remarkable knack for sticking with tradition while simultaneously indulging their penchant for elaboration. It's almost as if they got bored repeating the same "perfect" recipes for 2,000 years. So they decided to age their cheeses in straw and honey, rub them with olive oil, stud them with peppercorns or truffles, even get them drunk on wine or whiskey—with frequently brilliant results. Hey, if you're going to mess with success, you might as well get it right!
Italy's finest cheeses have historically come from stone huts amid lush mountain pastures or ancient tile-roofed farmhouses. Their modern descendants are at once rustic and robust, sophisticated and refined. Here's a tour around the boot by way of eight of the country's current elite.
A mixed (cow's and sheep's) milk bloomy rind delight from the Caseificio dell'Alta Langa in Piedmont. Its ultrasmooth, spreadable consistency coats the inside of your mouth in luxurious creaminess and a touch of mouthwatering acidity, highlighting a mild and inviting but complex profile, with sweet, lactic notes and a hint of mustiness.
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP
Modern logistics have allowed us to enjoy the best of Italy's mozzarellas utterly fresh. This standard-bearer provides creamy flavors punctuated by subtle musky notes. Its striated "chicken-breast" texture represents a nice contrast to the silky Robiola. A mozzarella would usually lead off a plate, but here you've got assertive salt up front and added heft from the rich bufala milk.
The best of Marcelli Formaggi's roster, imported courtesy of a transatlantic family connection to the Abruzzo region. Like many mountain ricottas, it has a lightly smoked accent; it's also treated with dried herbs and pepperoncini. On the attack, it's plenty salty, but that element quickly recedes amid some pleasant bittersweet sheepy funk, leaving a remarkable yeasty, umami-laden impression reminiscent of cured or roasted meats. Truly a succulent cheese, its country charm is a credit to the concentrated Sopravissana sheep's milk.
Quadrello di Bufala
In 2006, the Gritti brothers, Bruno and Alfio, launched a bold experiment—importing southern water buffaloes to the their family farmstead, Quattro Portoni, up north near Bergamo, to make traditional regional cheeses. It's been a resounding success, as evidenced by this bufala-milk Taleggio. The Quadrello can be also quite salty on the attack, but that soon takes a back seat to the pleasantly pungent aroma and meaty richness of the milk.
Pecorino Oro Antico Riserva
Here's a standout—one of many—from Italy's most extensive and arguably most interesting category. With a wonderfully toothsome texture, this quintessential Tuscan reserve pecorino, from the Il Forteto co-op, north of Florence, is well on its way to a full, savory depth but still maintains floral, sweet and nutty flavors.
Vecchio Dolce Perenzin
Even the great Parmigiano-Reggiano (see "Big Parma") has been spun off in various delicious iterations. This one, made in the Veneto, checks all the requisite flavor boxes—floral, (tropical) fruity, savory—while leaning tantalizingly in the direction of an aged Gouda, with hints of caramel, butterscotch and chocolate. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix, it's tough to say whether the upstart outdoes the master, but he sure brings a fresh and exciting take to the tune.
This unique heritage cheese, from small-production artisans in the foothills of the southwestern Alps, delivers gloriously on the rustic promise. A crumbly, airy, open texture brings a lightness to counter its more assertive flavors. Meanwhile, its natural bluing, not necessarily visible, saunters in provocatively to augment an initial balance of salty and sweet. Castelmagno has none of the cloying, mouthcoating density of a more moist, fudgier blue, but all of its boisterous charm.
Gorgonzola Cremificato Guffanti
This younger, sweeter version of Gorgonzola (aka Dolce) offers a dense, soft texture, layering your palate in a lovely symphony of flavors—bittersweet, yeasty, sour, grassy, persistent and lingering, yet wonderfully balanced. If you prefer a no-punches-pulled, all-blue flavor, substitute the Mountain version, aka Gorgonzola Piccante.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.