Getting to Know: Supermarket Italian Cheeses
Italy is second only to France in the variety of cheeses it produces, but many of the “Italian” cheeses sold in American supermarkets are produced here. Such cheeses are generally fine for everyday use in pastas, sandwiches, and casseroles; reserve expensive, imported-from-Italy cheeses for a cheese board. Below is a sampling of “Italian” cheeses regularly sold in supermarkets.
Mascarpone is a rich, creamy cow’s milk cheese with a short shelf life. Chances are you’ve tasted mascarpone in tiramisú—it’s often flavored with coffee, chocolate, or liqueur and used in desserts. It’s also delicious atop fresh berries. Our tasters described it as “sweet and fatty” with a pleasantly “mouth-coating” texture.
We’re not fans of supermarket smoked mozzarella, which is usually made with “rubbery,” low-quality block mozzarella. Its smoke flavor dominates and tastes “fake” and “acrid,” according to our tasters. Buy the real deal from Italy or seek out a high-quality domestic brand.
Pizzerias use this cheese for pies and calzones because it melts well and is pleasingly “mild” and “milky.” Block mozzarella is sold in part-skim and whole-milk varieties; the two can be used interchangeably. Raw, both were unpleasantly “spongy, bouncy” and “salty,” but we liked both in lasagna and pizza. In sum, use them for cooking.
Originally, all mozzarella was made from the milk of water buffaloes; today, most is made from cow’s milk. Fresh mozzarella is lighter, silkier, and more flavorful than block mozzarella. It’s sold in spheres packaged in whey or water or shrink-wrapped. Our tasters loved its “creamy and mild,” “clean and fresh-tasting” flavor. Fresh mozzarella is the only choice for salads.
The Italian original, Fontina Val d’Aosta, is a costly cheese prized for its rich, nutty flavor and excellent meltability. Other fontinas are not in the same league but can be good nonetheless—“bright,” “firm,” and “smooth and creamy,” tasters said. Even at the supermarket, look for Italian-made fontina and use it in panini and baked pastas.
When they weren’t expanding their empire or feeding Christians to the lions, Roman citizens made this aged sheep’s milk cheese, hence its name. It shines in such boldly flavored dishes as pasta alla carbonara, but we often mix it with Parmesan to mitigate its sharp saltiness. Our tasters were split: Some praised it as “grassy and rich” and “strong but not bitter,” while others found it disagreeably “gamey” and “sheep-y.”
Ricotta means “re-cooked” in Italian, and this “pillowy,” moist, fresh cheese is so named because it was traditionally made with leftover whey from the production of other cow’s milk cheeses. (American ricotta, however, is made from milk, not whey.) Mass-market ricotta is fine in baked pasta, but for something extraordinary, buy ricotta without stabilizers, gums, or preservatives. It has a short shelf life but is so good it probably won’t last anyway.
Inexpensive, mass-produced domestic gorgonzola (the kind sold in most supermarkets) is “super-salty” and “sour,” although passable in small quantities or if paired with other strong flavors. When it’s the star of the show, seek out authentic imported Gorgonzola, a blue cheese that’s creamy, rich, and assertive—even stinky, but in a good way. Precrumbled Gorgonzola is often dry and of poor quality; avoid it.
Authentic provolone cheese, which is usually aged for 2 to 3 months, is pear-shaped, nutty, and mildly assertive. Alas, the supermarket deli provolone we tasted was “bouncy and bland” and “mild,” “like milk Jell-O,” “nothing like the real deal.” It does melt well, however, and is often used in sandwiches.
Made in a northern region of Italy, the real deal, Parmigiano-Reggiano, can be found in many American supermarkets—at a price. It’s nutty, buttery, and crystalline; Italians consider it the king of cheeses. The domestic stuff is cheaper (by as much as $10 per pound), younger, and less nuanced but wonderfully versatile for cooking. We use the rinds to add depth to soups, stews, and stocks.
Ricotta salata (“re-cooked and salted” in Italian) is made with leftover whey from the production of sheep’s milk cheeses. It is almost exclusively imported from Italy. This firm, dry cheese is “very salty” and has a “barnyard-y” bite that complements fruit (try apples, pears, figs, or watermelon). It’s also good in salad.
Because of its lower price and nutty flavor, this firm, aged cow’s milk cheese is a common substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is often grated over pasta, shaved for salads, or served with meats as antipasti. We found supermarket Asiago “tangy” and “like a combination of cheddar and Parmesan,” with a strong, but not unpleasant, aftertaste.