Why It Works
- Infusing the cream with garlic and thyme adds more flavor and complexity to the sauce.
- Carefully melting in the cheeses over gentle heat ensures the sauce doesn't break.
When making pasta ai quattro formaggi, Italy's answer to mac and cheese, the question that immediately comes up is: which four cheeses should I use? I've never been able to find a definitive answer. I've poked around the Italian corners of the internet, looked in books, and asked some friends, and most of the answers are specific to the pizza topping with the same name, not the pasta.
I don't recall ever having eaten it when I was living in Italy and working on farms there, but I asked Sasha, who grew up in Rome, if he had any sense of the pasta's popularity. "In my experience, it’s less of a restaurant dish, and more of an at-home pantry pasta like pasta al tonno, but one that makes the kids happy à la mac and cheese." You gotta love a country where casually having four decadent cheeses on-hand at all times is assumed to be the norm.*
*At least in the North of Italy this is the case, something I delighted in nightly on the Piedmont farm I worked on for nearly a year. The habit of so much household cheese, I should note, is responsible for this cheese-scraps quiche I learned on that same farm.
Back to those four cheeses: There's no one rule. For the pizza rendition, fresh fior di latte (cow's milk mozzarella) and gorgonzola dolce (the creamy, spreadable kind) are almost always in attendance, but the other two shift around a bit. Popular choices include an Alpine cheese like Fontina, Swiss, or Gruyère that are good for melting; aged ones for fine grating like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano; a smoked cheese like Provola affumicata; or a creamy spreader like Robiola.
Most versions of the four-cheese pasta track similarly, though with one major adjustment: leave the mozzarella out of the equation. It melts well on a pizza, offering its characteristic milky stretch, but fails for exactly that same reason when the goal is to build a smooth and creamy cheese sauce for pasta.
In place of the mozzarella, many recipes use Taleggio, which, as Sasha has demonstrated before with his killer grown-up broccoli with cheese recipe, is one hell of a melter, requiring no help at all from common cheese-sauce additives like flour to maintain a smooth, grease-free emulsion when heated in milk or cream. Taleggio has the added benefit of bringing some serious funky flavor to the cheese foursome, something that milky mozzarella, as much as I love it, can't pretend to do.
With Taleggio forming the cheesy-sauce base, the next step is to build in layers of flavor and texture. The Alpine cheeses already mentioned, being good melters in their own right, are a logical choice, especially once there's a creamy base to melt them into. They add nuttier, sweeter, butterier, and earthier notes to the sauce, especially the more flavorful ones like a good Gruyère or real Italian Fontina.
After that, the remaining cheeses most likely to go into the sauce are, just like the pizza, blue gorgonzola dolce—one of my all-time favorite cheeses, and one that's so eager to melt it starts flowing at room temp—and a finely grated aged Parmesan, a pasta classic that would be an insult to leave out.
Of course, you're welcome replace any of these with like-minded cheeses. Taleggio got too much funk for you? Try another natural melter like Stracchino or Robiola. Want a sharper punch than what Parm offers? Reach for Pecorino Romano instead. A blue like gorgonzola not to your taste? I honestly can't think of a good substitute for this one, so you'll either have to double up on one of the other categories, or cut it out entirely and call the dish Pasta ai Tre Formaggi instead.
I mix the gorgonzola in last, so that it doesn't fully melt and little bits of it cling to the finished pasta (if it all melts, though, that's fine too). If you do replace the blue with a different type of cheese, just be sure to incorporate it at the appropriate time in the process, either along with the Taleggio, if it's a second melty spreader, or when whisking in the Alpine cheese, if you're doubling up on that.
No matter which four cheeses you end up choosing, quattro formaggi is at its best when you layer cheeses of different textures and flavors, making good on the recipe name's boastful promise. After all, no one wants a four-cheese pasta that tastes one-note.
- 1 cup (240ml) heavy cream
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 medium garlic clove, lightly smashed
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (depending on how peppery you want it)
- 3 ounces (85g) rind-free Taleggio, cut into roughly 1-inch chunks (about 1/2 cup)
- 3 ounces (85g) grated Gruyère or Fontina (about 1 loosely packed cup)
- 1 1/2 ounces (40g, about 1/2 cup) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound (450g) dried fusilli, penne, or other short pasta
- 3 ounces (85g) gorgonzola dolce, broken into roughly 1-inch pieces (about 3/4 cup)
In a 3-quart saucepan, saucier, or other medium pot, combine cream with thyme, garlic, and black pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a flexible spatula to prevent scorching, then remove from heat and let steep 5 minutes. Remove and discard garlic and thyme.
Return infused cream to low heat and add Taleggio, whisking constantly until Taleggio is fully melted.
Add grated Gruyère (or Fontina) and continue to whisk until fully melted and a smooth sauce forms. Whisk in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until al dente. Using a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to cheese sauce; alternatively, strain pasta in a colander, making sure to first reserve 1 cup (240ml) pasta-cooking water. Add 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta-cooking water to pasta and sauce and, working over medium-low heat, stir gently until pasta is coated in a creamy glaze. If sauce becomes too thick, add more pasta water, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, to loosen to proper glazing consistency. Season with salt to taste.
Remove from heat and stir in gorgonzola; it may completely melt into the sauce, but it's fine (arguably even desirable) if some pieces remain mostly intact.
Serve right away, passing more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.
3-quart saucier or saucepan
Make-Ahead and Storage
This pasta is best enjoyed immediately.