Editor’s note: This is a weekly series focusing on the importance of buying local.
No, it’s not picture time. It’s Italian cheese time to be exact.
September is National Italian Cheese Month. The common bond with some of the most popular Italian meals and food – lasagna, pizza, manicotti, ravioli and cannoli – is Italian cheese, especially the top-of-the-line variety.
Opinions vary on what are truly the best Italian cheeses. An informal survey showed a bevy of choices and favorites.
Most agree, however, that to enjoy the best Italian dishes, it is all about the cheese.
This month provides an exceptional time to indulge in and celebrate Italian cheese and the buttery, bold, creamy, crumbly and nutty cheeses that are essential to the most popular of Italian fare.
Tony Salamone, owner of Salamone Italian Food Market, National Pike, said the premium cheeses are more expensive, but the taste is better and of the highest quality. That makes a difference.
“Anytime you are buying that kind of product, it is better to buy the best you can buy because the taste is different,” Salamone said. “When you purchase the premium cheese, the food is going to be better. No matter, the purchase, the food will taste good, but it will be better with the premium cheeses.”
Salamone‘s personal favorites are Locatelli Romano, Fontinella and Asiago.
While Fontinella is not considered an Italian cheese – it is made in North America and has been produced for nearly a century – many use it in popular dishes.
Said one online survey respondent: “I love Fontinella, but I don’t think it is actually Italian. It’s really good though.”
Close enough, Salamone said.
While Fontinella is a creamy, semi-hard cheese, Fontina is a cow’s milk cheese that originated in Italy and is traditionally made from unpasteurized milk in the Aosta Valley – an Alpine region in northwest Italy. It is also made in Denmark, Sweden, United States, Canada and Argentina.
“Fontina is a little softer,” Salamone said.
Rachel Beeman has been involved in the food industry for 25 years and she has been a chef and lead cook at several establishments in the Mon Valley and around the South Hills and Pittsburgh area.
Beeman relies on Italian cheese for many of her special dishes. She agrees the premium cheeses make a difference in the taste of the food, however, the more that are used, the more the cost is placed on customers. That must be considered by chefs in purchasing Italian cheese for restaurants.
“In cooking, it is important to have the most natural and finest cheeses,” said Beeman, who recently took over the kitchen at the Italian Club in Monessen. “If you want authentic, genuine ingredients, you try to get the best.
“Sometimes restaurants don’t use the very best because consumers don’t want to pay premium or higher prices. Surroundings and economic issues must be considerations. It doesn’t mean the food won’t be good. It will, just not as good as it could be.”
Her personal favorites are Asiago, Burrata and Fontinella.
“Fontinella and Fontina taste basically the same,” she said.
According to several surveys and data, Mozzarella is the most popular cheese in the United States, with the average American eating more than 11 pounds of this classic cheese every year.
But that’s not where the love of Italian Cheese stops. Other favorites include Ricotta and Provolone, hard cheese like Parmesan and Romano, creamy selections such as Fresh Mozzarella and Mascarpone, and one-of-a-kind flavors like Bel Pease, Asiago and Gorgonzola.
According to www.theprouditalian.com, Italian cheese, generally, is full of a rich, flavorful history waiting to be shared. It is believed Italian cheese dates as far back as the Roman Empire, where many families had a special kitchen, called a caseale, used exclusively for making, aging and storing cheese.
Types of soft Italian cheeses
Again, according to www.theprouditalian.com, this group includes: Burrata, an alternative to Mozzarella in pizza and pasta dishes and omelets; Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Ricotta, Stracciatella, a cheese made from Italian buffalo milk.
Semi-soft Italian cheeses
Fontina headlines this category, it melts well into creamy dishes, such as chowder and makes for an accompaniment to Turkey meatloaf or terrines.
Gorgonzola, a cheese that has blue veins contained in its layers; and Bel Pease, to be eaten as a snack with figs and slices of juicy melons.
Hard Italian cheeses
Leading off with Grana Padano made from Italian dairy cattle. Only raw materials and ingredients are used in the production of this cheese. It is semi-fat in consistency and is cooked and slowly matured for at least nine months.
Parmigiana Reggiano, commonly known as Parmesan cheese. It has a sharp fruit, nutty taste, and some variants that can be somewhat bitter, too – one of the most common cheeses in the Italian cheese deli.
Pecorino, a hard, salty type of cheese made from sheep’s milk. This cheese was an essential staple in the ancient Mediterranean cultures for many years.
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