From pizza to pasta to tiramisu, Americans have a deep appreciation of Italy’s cuisine. After all, what’s not to love? That love, of course, includes cheese. Italy is home to more than 400 different varieties, 52 of which have denominazione di origine protetta (“protected designation of origin”, or DOP), status under European Union regulations. Each region boasts its own unique cheese traditions, styles, production methods and even milks, from buffalo and cow’s milk, to goat and sheep’s milk.
As Americans, we take inspiration from around the world and make things our own. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that New York City is as much of a pizza destination as Naples. This applies to Italian cheeses, as well. For decades, domestic cheesemakers have been hard at work creating American versions of Italian favorites—mozzarella, burrata, ricotta, Fontina, Pecorino and Parmesan, to just scratch the surface. They’ve also taken inspiration from Italy’s cheeses to create new items entirely their own. The U.S. is a newer country than Old World Italy, and our culinary traditions are still being shaped. Domestic Italian cheese is a part of this evolving, exciting food landscape.
“It’s important to educate the American consumer on the qualities and virtues of authentic made-in-Italy cheeses in order to set them apart from ‘Italian sounding’ imitations,” urges Antonino Laspina, U.S. trade commissioner and executive director of the Italian Trade Commission, based in New York. “Italy takes much pride in its cheese culture, and Italian cheesemakers can always tap into it in order to rejuvenate old and ancient traditions and adjust them to meet the latest trends of the market.” American cheesemakers are not bound by these traditions and regulations. In a way, they are starting from scratch. Domestic cheese does not replace Italian cheeses, which we respect and admire. It’s just an addition to the dairy offerings and possibilities.
Here are some Italian-inspired domestic cheeses that are deli department staples.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a great way to illustrate the difference between Italian and American Italian-style cheeses. “In Italy this cheese is protected with DOP status,” explains Agela Abdullah, marketing director at Caputo Cheese. In Melrose Park, IL, the Caputo family has been crafting fine Italian cheeses since 1978. “Being a DOP cheese means that every stage of production is controlled, including the region of Italy where it can be made. Master tasters judge each wheel, and if the cheese reaches the highest of standards, it is granted DOP status and goes to cheese shops as Parmigiano Reggiano.”
“Here in the United States, we don’t have such strict regulations,” Abdullah says. “Many cheesemakers of domestic Parmesan are using techniques and recipes from their Italian counterparts, but of course it’s a different cheese. The animals are fed differently in California or in Wisconsin, and cheesemakers can put their own spin on the cheese. It’s similar to the difference between Champagne from France and sparkling wine from California. We’re a stronger industry when we respect each culture’s food identities.”
SarVecchio Parmesan is an award-winning Sartori cheese, made in Wisconsin and aged for at least 20 months, with a depth of flavor fitting for sprinkling on pasta, soups and stews. Another difference to note: in Italy, Parmigiano Reggiano is always made from raw milk. In the U.S., the milk is usually pasteurized first, which kills microorganisms that add to the complexity of flavor.
This is best known as an ingredient in tiramisu or creamy cheesecake. It’s a rich, fresh cow’s milk cheese with a short shelf life. Mascarpone is made with heavy cream, instead of whole milk, like most cheeses, and it’s not just for desserts—it is a common ingredient in pizza, soup and pasta. With 50% butterfat, it has garnered accolades for its pure cream flavor and smooth, thick texture.
Originally, all mozzarella was crafted from water buffalo milk. Today, most is made from cow’s milk. There are two types, the lighter, silkier, more flavorful fresh mozzarella, and block or low moisture mozzarella, the mild and milky kind used for melting on pizza or in lasagna. Fresh mozzarella is packaged in whey or water or shrink-wrapped, and more and more often made on premises in grocery store delis. It’s a relatively easy way to entice customers with a value-added product that really shines, especially in a caprese salad with fresh tomatoes and basil—sample on skewers with slices of tomato and a sprinkle of sea salt. Smoked mozzarella can be used on an antipasti platter or a sandwich.
Green Bay, WI-based BelGioioso makes fresh, low moisture and smoked varieties, and mozzarella’s sought-after cousin burrata. This fresh cheese looks a lot like a sphere of fresh mozzarella, but when split open, it oozes a rich, soft filling of fresh curds soaked in heavy cream. Belgioioso’s black truffle burrata is studded with fragrant truffles. BelGioioso is an American and Italian collaboration, using Wisconsin terroir and milk and Italian-inspired recipes and techniques to make cheese that is both truly Italian and genuinely American.
Asiago is an Italian cow’s milk cheese traditionally made in the Veneto and Trentino regions in Italy. Authentic Asiago DOP can only be produced in specific regions of Northern Italy. American versions of this cheese include one from Sartori, a fourth-generation family-owned and operated company in Plymouth, WI. Their Asiago is a snacking cheese, especially with salami, good bread and an amber ale, this cheese has a delicately sweet flavor and buttery aroma.
Originally from Basilicata, in Southern Italy, now provolone is made and enjoyed throughout the world, in different shapes and styles. The simple, flavorful, pleasantly piquant hard cheese is a favorite for sandwiches of all kinds, and it’s available in both sharp (“piccante”) and mild (“dolce”) versions. The American sliced provolone is a deli staple, and very much its own thing, mild, soft and ideal for layering with cold cuts. Organic Valley in La Farge, WI; Sargento in Plymouth, WI; and Applegate Farms in Bridgewater, NJ, all make quality products in this vein.
For centuries, cattle herds in Lombardy trekked to and from seasonal pastures, stopping to rest in the little town of Gorgonzola. Out of the abundance of milk came the eponymous cheese. Originally, the cheese blued naturally from the penicillium lurking in damp caves. These days, the wheels are pierced and injected with a hint of the instigator mold. Young Gorgonzola is creamy and soft; as the cheese ages, it becomes harder and crumbly. All Gorgonzola is garlicy and peppery, and can be added to salad, sauces or cheese plates with some Moscato d’Asti. In La Valle, WI, Carr Valley’s Glacier Gorgonzola, redolent of truffles and funky, won Bronze in the World Cheese Awards in 2017 and 2019.
The Italian original is Fontina Val d’Aosta, made from the raw, fresh milk from a single milking of Valdostana cows in the Italian Alps. The cheese is prized for its rich, nutty flavor and meltability. It’s generally served with a spread of charcuterie and fruit or in a grilled cheese sandwich. Sartori’s Fontina is sweet and smooth with a creamy, peppery finish.
The name “Pecorino” simply means “from sheep” in Italian, and each region has its own take on sheep’s milk cheeses. Pecorino Romano is made from the countryside outside of Rome (it can be salty and intense); Pecorino Toscano comes from the rolling hills of Tuscany (usually one notch mellower). Sheep’s milk is renowned for its excellent composition for cheesemaking, with nearly twice the protein, fat and calcium of cow’s milk. BelGioioso Romano has a bite that develops over five months of aging. With a more aggressive character than Parmesan, Romano offers serious flavor.
Since the 9th century, squares of Taleggio have been left in brine; the result is a sticky, pretty orange rind, which should be eaten along with the pudding-soft paste. It’s bark is bigger than its bite; a strong aroma makes way to a surprisingly mild cheese, with a beefy and tart funkiness. It’s used for melting on top of polenta or with crusty bread and a glass of Barbaresco or Barolo. Grayson is an award-winning American version made at Galax, VA-based Meadow Creek Dairy. It’s sticky and stinky, with an oniony, meaty tang that sings with a nutty brown ale.
Innovations and New Products
These are just the beginning. Italian cheesemaking heritage makes its mark on all sorts of American originals. Sartori has a range of flavored cheeses, from Rosemary and Olive Oil Asiago to Tennessee Whiskey Bellavitano to Espresso Bellavitano.
Caputo Cheese recently released a new line of fresh mozzarella infused with CBD under the Elevated Cow label. The cheese is infused with a minimum of 5mg of CBD per 1 ounce of cheese and is made to order. “Before we send the cheese to our restaurant and retail customers, we send the cheese out to an independent lab for testing,” explains Abdullah. “We offer Elevated Cow cheese in slices, Ovolini and Bocconcini and offer retail packaging as well as bulk for foodservice.”
Marketing and Merchandising Opportunities
In-store and online promotions, guided tastings and demos can get customers excited about new cheeses and demystify new products. They also help shoppers know what to do with unfamiliar cheeses. Giving simple recipe and pairing ideas is always helpful, as is cross merchandising with charcuterie, jams, nuts, crackers and spreads“More recipe development with cheese would be an excellent idea,” says Abdullah. “Folks know about using fresh mozzarella for pizza or caprese sandwiches, but look for something new. Butternut squash stuffed with Burrata is a great fall and winter dish, or coating ricotta in sugar and caramelizing it, spreading it on pizzelles or graham crackers, and it’s like a decadent s’more. Be creative with cheese in the case and offer the recipes to your customers.” You’ll generate new ideas, new sales and new love for these excellent cheeses. DB