9 Awesome Italian Cheeses Everyone Should Know

[Photograph: Alice Gao]

If French cheeses are best served preceding or culminating a meal, Italian cheeses are often woven into the fabric of dinner (or breakfast, or lunch).

Parmigano-Reggiano, the King of Cheese, is ubiquitous grated over fresh pasta, or slivered atop asparagus, or tangled up with peppery arugula and a squeeze of lemon. Ricotta is for drizzling with good olive oil and scooping up with crusty bread, or baking into lasagna, or cheesecake. Wedges of Pecorino Toscano are perfect salad bedfellows; Asiago is at home in many a gratin; and mozzarella was made for pizza (or vice versa?).

That doesn't mean that Italy's cheeses aren't diverse, nuanced, and exquisite. Or that they do not stand on their own. A whiff and a bite of meaty, oozing Taleggio or a sweet, creamy Robiola is proof the French have no monopoly on cheese triumph. Here are some stellar, beloved Italian cheeses that ought to be part of your repertoire.

9 Italian Cheeses You Should Know

Gorgonzola

Gorgonzola Cheese

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 Cheese

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 Cheese

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.

Fontina d'Aosta

Fontina d'Aosta Cheese

Region of Origin: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna in Emilia-Romagna; and Mantova in Lomardy.

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: 3 months or longer

Notes: Perfumy, fruity, and brazen—this is the Italian answer to gruyere. Fontina d'Aosta is made from the raw, fresh milk from a single milking of Valdostana cows inthe Valle d'Aosta, in the Italian Alps. These 20-ish-pound wheels are firm and supple. Real, DOC-protected fontina's flavors are a grand symphony of fruits and nuts and herbs.

Serve: Perfect with a spread of charcuterie and fruit. The star of fonduta, a butter and egg-laden fondue and a classic Piedmontese dish that's often laced with white truffles. At home in any panini or grilled cheese sandwich, and welcome on a cheese board.

Parmigiano-Reggiano

Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

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 Cheese

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 Cheese

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.

Asiago

Asiago Cheese

Region of Origin: From the Po Valley to the Alpine pastures between the Asiago Plateau and the Trentino's highlands.

Type of milk: Cow

Aged: From a few weeks (fresco) to nearly a year (vecchio).

Notes: This is a cheese that goes down easy: mild, lactic, supple. Young asiago is springy and soft; with age the texture changes to hard-as-Parmesan. The flavors intensify in the aged varieties, but never become sharp or biting. Totally approachable and snackable.

Serve: A perfect munching cheese, especially with salami, good bread, and an amber ale. Fresco is best for sandwiches and salads; aged asiago is great grated and strewn on pastas, salads, and gratins.

Robiola Piemonte

Robiola Piemonte Cheese

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]

Full disclosure: I work at Fairway market in NYC, where these gorgeous cheeses were shot.