Grating cheese on food is one of life’s ultimate pleasures. Shaving curls of salty dairy snow onto greens, soups and pastas is coded into the food DNA of multiple cultures. But if you only use pre-shredded, homebrand “Parmesan” it’s time to evolve your taste buds.
Not to be an anthropomorphic Italian food comment, but there’s nothing like the real thing when it comes to Italian cheeses – especially if you’re grating them over Italian pasta dishes.
Italian cheeses are region-specific agricultural products that are protected by the Italian and European governments. So it’s worth learning how they differ from each other and what makes them so delicious.
Hard Italian cheeses like Parmesan, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Pecorino Romano may seem similar to the uninitiated, but their unique qualities can take dishes to the next level when you select from a place of knowledge. Naturally, each type is also produced under license outside of Italy.
Domestic Parmesan cheese, though not the same as imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, is not sub par, says Sal Di Palo, co-owner of Di Palo Fine Foods. However, domestic facsimiles just don’t have the nuance and complexity of regional Italian cheeses, and you’ll notice once you understand their unique talents, which Di Palo was kind enough to explain.
Parmigiano Reggiano and other cow’s milk cheeses
Cow’s milk cheeses and their umami-heavy amino acid crystals make up the grana—or “grain like”—cheese umbrella. Under it are parmesan, Parmigiano Reggiano, grana padano, and other great graters. It’s the cows’ diet that makes the cheese have such individuality, explains Di Palo: “I’m sure that there are probably some smaller domestic cheese makers that graze their cows, but as far as the big producers go, they probably control the feed in a constant state.”
Parmesan tastes similar to Parmigiano Reggiano, but the latter is much more delicate tasting. According to Di Palo, these rare notes aren’t always present in homogenized domestics like Parmesan because the grazing is often in feedlots.
“The cows don’t have the different grazing areas, the mountains, the valleys,” he explains. The nuance of Parmigiano Reggiano is dependent on the seasons, which dictates the vegetation that herds will have access to. While cows in the Parma region have ample grass in the spring, their wildflower habit imparts a floral quality to the cheese, which would do best in a beschamela or insalate rather than as a topping for red sauce and meatballs.
Grana Padano—another excellent grating option—is made using only evening milk from the cows, imparting less fat into the final wheel—while Parmigiano uses both morning and evening milk stores. Di Palo notes that while they also have a similar production style, “They cut the curds very small so that it retains less moisture and it has that crystallization, but Grana is made in a different zone, above the Po River.” Grana Padano is a sturdy, fruitier offering that still makes a pasta complete with a similar subtlety to Parmigiano.
For a nutty, younger choice from the Northern part of the country, Di Palo suggests another versatile cow’s milk cheese: “Piave, which comes one year aged, can be used as a grating cheese or shaved into a salad.”
Cow’s milk cheeses like Parmigiano, Grana Padano, and Piave pair well with: Cream sauces, bitter greens, bright fruit jams, and another Italian classic, Prosecco.
Sheep’s milk cheeses
One of the other best known cheeses for showering your pasta is my personal fave—Pecorino Romano. I grew up grating as much as possible over pretty much anything, but now, as an adult, I love to chip it up with a plate of strawberries and honey, which brings out the funkier elements of the sheep’s milk it is sourced from.
More commonly sprinkled below Rome, Romano stands up to bold, zippy tomato sauces and vegetable-based favourites of the Mezzogiorno, another name for the southern portion of Italy. Di Palo explains what makes it well known: “Pecorino tends to be a little more sharp in taste, a little more bitey, saltier—which is characteristic of that type of cheese.”
“Pecoro is sheep in Italian, and Romano means from Rome,” he continues. “True Pecorino Romano comes from Lazio, but there’s a lot of other pecorino, like from Sardegna.” It’s also a southern staple, being the choice for grating from Lazio on down to Sicily.
Pecorino is the prime cheese to use for Roman pasta delight Cacio e Pepe, which I grew up thinking was just some bullshit my mum made me when there was no time, not the legit delicacy many consider it today. More common than Kraft singles, the iconic brown-rinded Locatelli brand of Pecorino cheese was a staple in my childhood fridge, and it delivered a sharp, funky saltiness to everything we ate. When my mum remarried a non-Italian, I tried the “green can” cheese for the first time, and found that it tasted like air.
Another sheep’s (but sometimes cow’s) milk cheese that can upgrade your grate game is Caciocavalllo. My Aunt still visits Cinisi—our original home base on Sicilia—and when she does, the squash shaped, rich tasting Caciocavallo comes home in her luggage. You can eat this smooth, provolone-ish treat in thin slices, but once you get closer to the waxy rind, grate it all over tomato sauces and chickpea dishes generously. If you don’t have a travelling aunt, there are a few ages of Caciocavallo available in import stores, and the older varieties grate even better.
Di Palo backs this choice, noting Caciocavallo’s traditional use on Sicilian classic, Pasta alla Norma, which melds eggplant and pasta together with the milky cheese.“More people use it as an eating cheese than a grating cheese, but the old timers still know it.” Di Palo adds, “Food invokes memory, and they buy that because their mother had it on the table.”
Sheep’s milk cheeses work well in: meaty ragu, zippy pesto tossed with summer vegetables, or simple cheese-forward dishes like Cacio e Pepe and cheese rind brodo.
Even if it’s a bit more pricey pound for pound, knowing how to use these choice cheeses to their fullest potential means getting your money’s worth every time.
Whether you swap Parmesan for Grana Padano or pay a premium for an authentic Pecorino Romano, consider using a cheese suited to the dish you want to create. Beyond the suggestions above, you can pair your cheese the wine you plan to drink, or even match the region of origin of your dish to the region the cheese comes.
Even if it’s not a perfect match, it will be delicious, and you’ll learn to think outside the Parmesan wheel.
This article has been updated since its original publication.