At first, it might seem odd that the owner of one of the most venerable cheese shops in Italy also moonlights as a model. Yet when Fiorenzo Giolito proudly points to an image of himself as Mr. September in a fundraising calendar he organized a few years back, covered only by an apron and a few beloved wheels of cheese, it's hardly a surprise. With a goofy yet tenacious smile, it's easy to see that Giolito isn't your typical cheesemonger. His shop, Giolito Formaggi, just an hour outside of Turin, is proof.
Founded in 1920 by Fiorenzo's grandmother, the Giolito cheese business began as a wholesale cheese reseller. After World War II, her son Francesco took over the business, shifting his attention to selling at the weekly farmers markets throughout the Piedmontese province of Cuneo. Fiorenzo, Francesco's son, got his start in the family business at 20 years old and soon took over from his father, continuing to sell at the weekly markets.
The tiny shop itself is just ten years old, located in the tiny Piedmontese city of Bra, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and current headquarters for both the local and international chapters of the organization. It's situated on the ground floor of the Giolito family home, and if the cheese aromas alone don't get you in the door, the roaring fireplace will.
Fiorenzo keeps a tight reign on his products. He buys directly from trusted producers and ages the cheeses himself in three small cellars located in the back of the shop. "Most are of Italian origin, with no more then 5-10% coming from other parts of Europe," says cheesemonger Andrea Grisotto.
What's most unique about Giolito is their large selection of Slow Food Italian Presidia cheeses. The Presidia began in 2006 as a means of protecting the biodiversity of small-scale quality products at risk of becoming extinct. There are currently over 200 products in Italy that bare the label, and Giolito's carries six of them.
One in particular is Montebore. Made of cow and sheep's milk, this cheese has a unique three-tiered shape thought to date back to the 15th century, when the cheese was said to be presented at the wedding of Isabella of Aragon, the daughter of the King of Naples, and Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the son of the Duke of Milan. Today just one producer makes the special cheese.
The city's namesake cheese, simply called Bra, is one of the shop's specialties, which Andrea says "is typical and a must for the area." Made from cows' milk, Bra Tenero D.O.P. is young and mild, aged for just two to four months, while Bra Duro D.O.P. has a bit more bite and texture thanks to an additional four months of aging. Fiorenzo singles out a handful of the Duro wheels to make his Bra Stravecchio, an intensified version of the sharp Duro, which is aged for over a year and massaged in olive oil. But Braciuk, meaning "drunken Bra," is his most inventive take on the city's cheese. To make it, younger Tenero wheels are aged for an additional three months in barrels of leftover grape must from surrounding Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Pelaverga vineyards, resulting in an intense, slightly boozy cheese.
Giolito's house-made creations are evidence of Fiorenzo's wit. Manicomio, which is the Italian word for an asylum or madhouse, is an indulgent and addictive blend of mascarpone, sweet blue cheese and a few "secret ingredients." The richness of the mascarpone pairs perfectly with the sharp blue cheese, making it a cheese that would be equally welcome swirled into risotto as it would be slathered on your morning toast with a drizzle of honey. The shop's other wacky invention is called Delirium. A riff on a classic pairing, the crumbly innards of a Stilton wheel are doused with a heavy hand of white Port, absorbing the alcohol and intensifying its flavor.
Though most of the shop's energy goes toward its in-house business, Giolito is also an external consultant for Eataly, choosing products and assisting producers in getting those products on their shelves throughout Italy and Tokyo, New York, and most recently Chicago. Fiorenzo is also one of the cofounders of Cheese, Slow Food's biennial festival held in Bra that brings together the world's best cheeses and their producers.
Visiting Giolito, it's hard not to be convinced that Fiorenzo was brought down to earth by the cheese gods themselves. Giolito Formaggi is a testament to a shop that stands firmly in tradition while remaining innovative, and more importantly, fun.