The Cheese Lover's Guide to Italy
Thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know that cheesemaking has been a very big deal in Italy for at least 2000 years, but only in the last few has cheese tourism really bubbled to the fore. So whether you want to milk cows on a farm, wander through an entire Parmigiano Reggiano-themed museum—or just go on a burrata bender—we've got the top 10 spots to hit. Read on for the tasty grand tour.
Dig, if you will, the picture: The year is 1920, give or take. And on a rare snowy night in the Pugliese town of Andria, a poor farmer named Lorenzo Biancchino has just made some mozzarella. He looks down at all the byproducts—pieces of leftover mozzarella, cream, and stretched curd—and wonders if there's any way to use them rather than tossing them as usual. And eccola! Burrata is born. Italian for “buttery”—a nod to the ultra-creamy texture—burrata quickly spread from farmer to farmer, then the cheese-loving world at large. Taste the heavenly result on one of TerraCheVive's small-group tours of Pugliese dairy farms.
In much of the Anglo world, when things go pear-shaped, you back away from them. In Italy, you eat them. The pear-shaped scamorza—which winds up this way after dangling from a string over the two-week aging process—tastes like an exquisite mozzarella that's sharper and more pungent than usual. The name is possibly derived from “capa mozza,” literally severed head. And thus, in Italian slang, the term scamorza refers to not only this type of Calabrian cheese, but also to a fool. You wouldn't be at all foolish, though, to top pizza with scamorza, as Calabrians often do. Other times, the cheese lands on crostini or in risotto because of the easy-melt factor. But one of the best places to taste the cheese for yourself is on the Michelin-starred Abbruzzino’s cheese plate in Catanzaro.
Campania: Mozzarella di Bufala
"Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam—and produce a deeper, creamier and slightly sweeter mozzarella than cows do," wrote no lyricist ever. But someone could've written those very words about Campania, a region closely associated with mozzarella di bufala (though the cheese is sprinkled throughout southern Italy). If there’s a bufala mozzarella option for your next pizzeria visit, don't hesitate, even if you have to pay a bit more. In Naples, home to the best pizzerias on the planet, try the pizza verace at legendary Starita or upgrade your Margherita pizza with some bufala mozzarella at Lombardi 1892.
Emilia-Romagna: Parmigiano Reggiano
Also known as the “King of Cheeses,” and on some supermarket shelves as “Parmesan,” Parmigiano Reggiano is an immensely flavorful and complex cheese that evolves (in the best of ways) the longer it’s aged. At about 36 months, for example, the cheese is gloriously sharp, tangy and dotted with calcium lactate crystals that add to the flavor strata. For a crash course on the details, spend some time in Parma itself, at the Museo del Parmigiano Reggiano. Then, for the ultimate tasting, head over to super chef Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, perhaps the best restaurant in Italy (and as of last year, the world). There he serves a dish called “Five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in different textures and temperatures.” Want to see how the cheese is made IRL? Of course you do! Stop by Ciao Latte, about 15 miles west of Parma, to take a morning tour. The dairy farm doubles as an agriturismo, so you can spend the night getting loaded on lactose. And if you never want to stop (a distinct possibility), know that there are dozens of dairy farms around Emilia-Romagna that give tours.
Lazio: Cacio di Roma
As you might guess from the name, this creamy semi-soft sheep's milk cheese hails from the Italian capital region, where, in the local dialect, "cacio" simply means cheese. Part of the pecorino family, Cacio di Roma is aged about a month to produce a pleasantly tangy flavor—as you'll find in salad after salad, and pizza after pizza, in Rome. But arguably the best use of cacio is the city's iconic pasta dish: cacio e pepe—just creamy cheese and black pepper generously coating long, thick bucatini noodles (another Roman staple). Da Enzo, in Trastevere, makes an excellent version. So does Da Danilo in the Esquilino neighborhood, where servers place your pasta in a huge—only partially hollowed-out—wheel of cacio di Roma.
Starting in about the ninth century, Lombard cows would pasture-hop through the mountains, stopping for a “coffee break” near the small town of Gorgonzola. When the first local farmers decided to seize the moment (and, apparently, the udders), a very special cheese was born. The blue part was the natural result of the cows' drinking habits: Penicillium-laced water sprang from nearby caves. Today, there are two types of Gorgonzola: one that’s aged for a year and has a sharper, bolder flavor, and one that’s softer with hints of sweetness. If you want to taste either at the source, you can easily make Gorgonzola a day trip from Milan. Plant yourself at Vecchia Pesa, a local favorite, and be sure to order the wild black risotto timbal with walnuts and Gorgonzola sauce.
Of Piedmont's many stellar cheeses, one crowd favorite is Robiola, a general term for one-week-aged, fresh and soft cheeses that are made from goat's, cow's or sheep's milk (or some combination of the three). When the cheese is on the fresher side, expect a sweet milky taste. But aged Robiolas are tangy—bordering on mushroom-y. If you’re ready to dive in, try one of ItaliAnna's cheese tours of Alba (where you should also go for truffles this season). And in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, stop into Latteria Bera, a deliciously stinky cheese shop full of Robiola.
Sardinia: Fiore Sardo
You may know this cheese by its other name: pecorino sardo. But call this stuff whatever you want; eating it is far more important. Fiore sardo is made from the milk of a particularly kind-to-your-tastebuds Sardinian sheep—pecora sarda—then aged for six months. The result is a dense, firm cheese with a nutty, salty flavor—often with hints of burnt caramel. Though eaten as a simple table cheese, either at the beginning or the end of a meal, fiore sardo is also sprinkled over malloreddus, a ghocchi-like pasta endemic to the island. In the Sardinian capital of Caligari, head straight for Niu and order any of the restaurant's fiore sarda-enhanced pasta dishes.
Sicily: Ricotta salata
Sicilian cheese makers take sheep's milk whey, press it, salt it—then age it for at least 90 days. The result is ricotta salata. If the translation is a bit clumsy ("recooked salted"), the flavor is the opposite: smooth and mild AF (the F for formaggio, of course). Sicilians add ricotta salata to almost anything, but one of their best vehicles for the cheese—and greatest gifts to the world—is the tomato-and-eggplant-laden pasta all Norma. You'll find a million fervent opinions on who makes Sicily's best version of the dish, but frequent contenders include Terra Madre and La Masseria. For a deeper dive, book a ricotta-themed tour through Private Sicily. You’ll be whisked to a dairy farm to see how the cheese is made, then have a cheese tasting and traditional Sicilian lunch.
This mild Northern Italian cows’ milk cheese begins on the plains of the Po River Valley (where the milking happens) and ends in the highlands near the town of Trentino (where the aging happens). Travel through the region yourself, and you’ll find two types of Asiago: fresco (fresh) and Vecchio (old). The newer variety is subtle and milky while the aged is sharper, bolder and often nuttier. To study—and eat copious amounts of—both, head to Ca’ Sorda Ai Pennar, a family-run agriturismo just outside the town of Asiago.