Slideshow: 9 Awesome Italian Cheeses Everyone Should Know

Gorgonzola
Gorgonzola

Region of Origin: Lombardy

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: Made in two styles. The softer, mellower dolce (sweet), and naturale (aged), which is more intense and aged for over a year.

Notes: For centuries, cattle herds 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 hit of the instigator mold. Young gorgonzola is creamy and Brie-like in texture; as the cheese ages, it becomes harder and crumbly. All gorgonzola is wonderfully garlicy and peppery.

Serve: With a ballsy Italian red like Amarone or Barolo; or with a dessert wine like Moscato d'Asti. A great salad cheese, a close friend of pasta, and a fine dessert with pears or figs.

Pecorino Toscano
Pecorino Toscano

Region of Origin: Tuscany—and all over Tuscany, from Siena to Prato.

Type of milk: Sheep

Aged: Anywhere from a few months to over a year

Notes: Because sheep's milk contains a very high percentage of butterfat, Pecorino Toscano is a little bit oily and a lot heavenly. There is depth and opulence in that butterfat. Aromatic, luxurious, with notes of olive and toasted walnuts. DOP name-protected.

Serve: The Tuscans welcome spring with melted Pecorino and drizzled olive oil over a bowl of fresh fava beans. Serve alongside a salad and good prosciutto for lunch. Or pair with olives and a glass of Chianti or Brunello.

Taleggio
Taleggio

Region of Origin: Lombardy

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: About 6 weeks

Notes: I'm crazy about this cheese. Taleggio's bark is bigger than its bite. Smells like a raging stinker, but the funkiness is balanced, complex, a bit nutty, and a lot wonderful. Tart, salty, and beefy. Let it get to room temp—how all cheeses should be served—and watch it ooze in gooey glory. 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.

Serve: Melt atop fresh polenta; or smear on good, crusty bread. Great with a fruity white wine like Soave, or a big red like Barbaresco or Barolo.

Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parmigiano-Reggiano

Region of Origin: Emilia-Romagna

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: About 2 years

Notes: An enormously flavorful, important cheese. Law dictates that Parmigiano-Reggianocan be made only between April and November so that the cow's graze on fresh, verdant pastures rather than dry hay. The milk, and thus the cheese, adopts a remarkable complexity of flavors—at once spicy, salty, briny, black walnutty, and lavishly piquant. Will melt in your mouth and tingle your tongue; or make the flavors in your cooking sing.

Serve: In everything and anything—pasta, risotto, eggs, veggies, meat dishes, salads, soups. Break out a big, bad Italian red: Barbaresco, Barbera, Barolo, Brunello, Chianti, etc.

Mozzarella di Bufala
Mozzarella di Bufala

Region of Origin: The area south and west of Naples

Type of milk: Water buffalo

Aged: As little as possible. Best the same day it's made, or a day or two after.

Notes: Water buffalo give this singular cheese an exceptional depth of flavor and sweetness. Moist, sweet, tender, meltingly soft, buttery, milky, and totally unique. The pull-apart texture echoes how it's made: mozzarella is a spun cheese, or pasta filata, usually by hand.

Serve: With a juicy tomato, basil leaves, a glug of good EVOO, flaky salt, and a grind of black pepper. Or with anchovies and crusty bread. Superlative in its deliciousness, it doesn't need much fuss.

Provolone
Provolone

Region of Origin: Basilicata, in Southern Italy, but now provolone is made and enjoyed throughout the country, in different shapes and styles.

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: Varies greatly from a few months to over a year. More age means sharper, more intense flavor.

Notes: How to make provolone (simplified): rub down mozzarella in brine and oil, wrap it in rope, and hang it to dry, harden, and transform. The result will be a simple, flavorful, salty, slightly oily, pleasantly piquant hard log or balloon or gourd shaped cheese. If you are accustomed to the grocery store deli counter tasteless, factory-made stuff, aged provolone from Italy will be a happy surprise.

Serve: A great sandwich cheese with broccoli rabe, or roast pork, or meatballs. Melt in omelets. Or serve with a cold beer and a bowl of olives.

Robiola Piemonte
Robiola Piemonte

Region of Origin: Piedmont

Type of milk: Robiola is the generic name for fresh, snowy cheeses from Piedmont made with cow, goat, or sheep's milk; or often a combination of the three.

Aged: About a week

Notes: Moist, tangy, rindless, with a just-about-to-melt ice cream texture. This is a really lovely family of cheese--Italy's answer to a triple-crème. Cream is often added, and the flavor is usually creamy, soft, and sweet. I like Robiola Bosina, made with the "due latte" of sheep and cow's milk; and also Robiola Rocchetta, made from all three milks and relentlessly dense and lush.

Serve: With a glass of Prosecco! Salute!

[Photo: Murray's Cheese]