Three alternative Italian cheeses you'll fall in love with

Bellissimo Tre

click to enlarge Casatica has a thin, white and soft-ripened rind with a creamy interior. - Kira Jefferson
Kira Jefferson
Casatica has a thin, white and soft-ripened rind with a creamy interior.

When one talks of Italian cheese, several staples come to mind: mascarpone, asiago, parmigiano-reggiano, taleggio and Gorgonzola. In reality, the list of cheeses made in that beautiful country proves as extensive as its wines, and only the cheeses of France rival the complexity and history of Italy's. Herds found exclusively in the Italian Alps provide milk for some cheeses; and when tourists ask for Pecorino while visiting Italy, they're likely to see puzzled expressions on the locals' faces, as each region has its own version of Pecorino with a unique twist added by the cheese-maker. As such, there are too many selections of Pecorinos for us to ever see their full range in the United States. The same is true for three of my favorite Italian cheeses, which sometimes get lost in the mass of cheeses available.

Originally used to plough marshes until the Roman Empire fizzled and land sat abandoned, water buffalo played an important role in Italian history. Several centuries later, records show the first documentation of buffalo milk and its use in cheese-making. Buffalo thrive in the south, making northern Italy an unusual location for buffalo milk production, yet Alfio and Bruno Gritti established a large herd near Bergamo. Today, Northern Italy produces a buffalo milk cheese called Casatica.

Different than Mozzarella, Casatica has a thin, white and soft-ripened rind with a creamy interior. The supple paste with small holes (known as "eyes" in the cheese world) delivers a silky texture and sweet milky flavor profile. This occurs because of buffalo milk's 21-percent fat content, high calcium, protein, vitamins and mineral salt. Buffalo milk is also easy to digest and, like goat and sheep milk, can sometimes be tolerated by individuals who suffer from an inability to digest lactose. A big wine can overpower Casatica's mild flavor, so keep it simple and enjoy with an Italian Pinot Grigio.

Burrata is a fresh cow's milk cheese similar to mozzarella in style. Both are pasta filata, or stretched cheeses. The stretching technique used to create Burrata allows the outside of the cheese to remain pliable while encasing a filling of wet curds and whey in the middle. The buttery aroma and sweet flavor help Burrata live up to its name, which translates to "buttered." When you cut into burrata the center filling oozes out slowly, escaping the slightly firmer shell. This cheese shines with fresh produce like rich avocados, salty sea beans, and tangy tomatoes or earthy cured ham.

An award-winning sheep's milk cheese called Nuvola di Pecora stole my heart at first taste. Nuvola di Pecora (which means "sheep cloud") has a thin, bloomy rind and firm-to-supple texture, depending on its age. The soft vegetal notes and milky sweetness of this cheese make Nuvola a dreamy treat. (You're bound to start counting cheese instead of sheep.) Most sheep's milk is aged to become firm and crystalline, making the thick custard-like texture of Nuvola di Pecora unique. Accentuate its richness with a creamy Pinot Noir and imagine yourself in the Emilio-Romagna region of northern Italy where Casatica is born.

Casatica, Burrata and Nuvola di Pecora deviate from the typical traditions of Italian cheese-making. However, the history, geography and culture of the region are obvious in the quality of these bellisimo cheeses.

Kira Jefferson is the resident "cheese guru" at SideBern's in South Tampa.

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