Food News

An expert’s guide to Italian cheese

Everything you wanted to know about formaggio, thanks to Maker and Monger's Anthony Femia.
John Paul Urizar

Italians have been transforming the humble staple of milk into a vast array of gourmet ferments for centuries. Fiercely protected traditions, preserved via the globally recognised Denominazione di Origine Protetta (protected designation of origin or DOP) status are, in part, what make Italian cheeses so lauded. But it’s also the wide variety of textures and flavours that keep people in amore with formaggio. “Italian cheeses have become world-renowned because of their versatility.

They’re not just a delicious table cheese, but they add so much to the culinary world and what we cook, especially in wintertime,” explains cheesemonger Anthony Femia, owner of Melbourne’s Maker and Monger. From grand wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano made to exacting standards, through to locally produced, hand-moulded spheres of mozzarella, Italian cheeses call upon tradition, expertly sourced dairy and perfect conditions to transform milk into individual culinary characters.



This mozzarella pocket, filled with fresh cream and stretched mozzarella strings (also known as stracciatella), hails from the south of Italy, in Puglia and Napoli. “Soft cheeses like these are experiencing a boom because of our love of textural cheese: the taste, the smell, the sight. In Australia in particular, we all love that gooey cheese. When you add burrata to a dish it takes it to another level in terms of the visual aspect,” says Femia.

Breaking into a milky white ball of burrata may be a pleasurable experience, but use this unctuous orb with restraint. “A lot of people don’t know how to use it properly – people want that texture and the explosion of cream, but then the fat just masks all the flavours,” says Femia. “It’s best used in winter, as a side, on top of roasted leek, or as a butter element on top of risotto.”


Due to the ever-growing popularity of this cheese, there’s currently not enough buffalo milk in Australia to keep up with demand, which means buffalo mozzarella will often be made with the addition of cow’s milk or frozen imported buffalo milk. While this is hard to spot, looking for small producers will ensure you’re getting a traditional, tasty buffalo mozzarella. “If you’re making a lasagne or melanzane, use scamorza or fior di latte throughout the dish, then finish with buffalo mozzarella on top,” says Femia. A good buffalo mozzarella should taste fresh, zesty, vibrant and sweet; appear a milky white; and

be suspended in an almost-clear whey.


Closely related to mozzarella, this cow’s milk cheese from southern Italy is great for melting because it has a perfect pH, resulting in stretchy curds. “[When it’s made], it’s reheated above 85 degrees and it becomes stretchy,” says Femia. “You’ll never get that separation of fats and proteins, which makes it ideal for pizza.”

(Photo: John Paul Urizar)



As one of the most famous varieties of semi-soft Italian cheese in Australia, this washed-rind semi-soft cheese is loved for its yeasty, sweet lactic flavours. “It’s a great washed-rind to cook with, that’s not as intimidating as its French counterparts like Munster and Époisses,” says Femia.

When cooking with it, be sure to cut off the rind. “The cheese is matured in a limestone cave, so the rind has quite an astringent flavour,” says Femia. Taleggio is also a great substitute for French reblochon. “One of the most-asked questions in any cheese shop in Australia is ‘do you have reblochon?’, because people want to make tartiflette. This cheese is the perfect substitute,” says Femia. It’s also ideal for topping pizzas and stirring through risotto.


When tracking down this thick-set cream cheese – particularly if you’re using it for a tiramisù – you should always look for imported Italian mascarpone. “Usually, Italian varieties are better because we can’t get the fat percentage as they do in the milk in Italy, France and Switzerland,” says Femia.


This cheese is traditionally made from the small curds left in the whey after making mozzarella. Always buy fresh ricotta and check the ingredients – it should say whey.

Want to make your own ricotta from scratch?

(Photo: John Paul Urizar)



As the king of Italian blue cheeses, Gorgonzola piccante is a strong flavour to enjoy, but also one that’s worth experimenting with to create interesting pairings. “When you’re pairing cheese and alcohol, it [usually] needs to marry where the flavours are on your palate. But with blue cheese it actually needs to contrast, because aged gorgonzola has notes of salt and bitterness,” says Femia. Try pairing with fresh, floral honeycomb or single origin dark chocolate, which work well with the bite of the cheese.


This cheese needs to be air-freighted from Italy as it has a short and specific window of ripeness, usually around 8-16 weeks. “It’s a great introductory blue cheese,” says Femia.



This firm, salty Italian cheese is made from sheep’s milk, with pecora literally meaning sheep in Italian. “The best pecorinos are aged between 3-9 months,” says Femia. Thanks to sheep milk’s higher fat content, a good pecorino will often retain flavours of what the sheep is grazing on, with notes of grass and hay, alongside hints of honey and lanolin. The best pecorinos come from Sardinia, Tuscany and outside of Naples, and are great to finish off dishes that aren’t too heavy, such as roasted zucchini or fennel; or with a classic risotto or pesto Genovese, where you get a sweet and savoury element.


This cheese hails from the Aosta Valley, a predominantly French-speaking region in northern Italy. Similar in flavour profile to its Swiss counterparts, it’s quite nutty with a hint of sweetness and a hit of umami. “There’s also a hint of bitterness on the back of the palate from the cheese rind being washed,” says Femia. It’s a crucial element of Italian fondue.


It’s best to always buy this pressed and dried ricotta straight off the wheel. “If you’re purchasing it pre-cut or plastic wrapped, it’s lost all its zing,” says Femia. Also known as ricotta salata, this firm white saline cheese can add a salty element to dishes without the need for regular salt.

(Photo: John Paul Urizar)



This cheese is made all across Italy, from cows that feed on grain and corn. It has a similar texture to Parmigiano Reggiano because of the hard-cooked recipe, but it’s the perfect cheese to cook with. “It’s

a suitable grating or cooking cheese,” says Femia. “Because it’s not as well protected by its DOP in terms of location and variety of cows, it’s always going to have a more basic flavour.”


This much-loved cheese is fiercely protected by its DOP status, which means it can only be made in five regions of Emilia-Romagna. It’s sometimes confused with ‘parmesan’, the American name for internationally made interpretations of the cheese. When you are looking for a great Parmigiano Reggiano, try to get it cut-to-order and keep an eye out for one that’s aged from 18-24 months. This is when the cheese’s fruity, sweet, wheat notes are the best.

“There’s a great misconception with a lot of cheeses that the older it is, the better it is, but that’s simply not the case,” says Femia. “A lot of places sell 2- or 3-year-old Parmigiano Reggiano, but that’s when you can get bile flavours,” says Femia. This is the result of a chemical reaction between the carbon dioxide, the quality of the milk and the proteins in the cheese itself. “People use descriptors like ‘bitey’ and ‘sharp’ as positive notes for this type of cheese, but they are not; that’s more of a marketing term to mask the inefficiencies,” says Femia, who also adds that Parmigiano Reggiano belongs on a table just as much as it does grated over a dish. In fact, it should be finely sliced rather than grated.

“When you shave it you release more of the flavours and the crunch of the calcium crystals,” he says. It’s also important to store Parmigiano in wax paper in a cool fridge. “With hard-cooked cheeses, when they are left at room temperature, they sweat quite quickly and that’s the fat and flavour leaving the cheese. Serving them at the optimal temperature is between 8 and 10 degrees, which is just 10 minutes out of the fridge.”

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