Pecorino, Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano: What is the best Italian cheese for pasta?
Whether it’s a sprinkling or a hefty handful, cheese is a common ingredient in many pasta dishes along the length of il Bel Paese. Although there are a number of cheese-free recipes (such as our vegan pestos), it can be used to add an extra tang or a subtle mellow flavour to your pasta. Your choice of cheese can transform your dish in a variety of ways. In this article, we’ll take a look at three of Italy’s most common cheeses – Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano Reggiano – and how they can add enticing new flavours to your pasta dishes.
Location and History
This might be an overstatement, but some might say that Pecorino Romano fuelled the expansion of the Roman Empire. Made from sheep’s milk in the Lazio Region, a daily portion of this hard cheese (27 grams, to be exact!) was given to each Legionnaire in the Roman Army, with a hunk of bread and bowl of farro soup. Whilst the Roman Empire did eventually come crashing down, this iconic Italian cheese has endured, and is enjoyed both by residents of the Eternal City and pasta-lovers from all over the world.
Pecorino Romano has a slightly tangy, almost spicy taste. This provides an ideal contrast with rich and earthy flavours. Note – the more mature a Pecorino is, the sharper the taste. This delicate-tasting cheese is generally matured for a minimum of 5 months, whilst a more pronounced flavour comes after 8 months or more (which is more common with grated pecorino).
Recipes with Pecorino Romano
Cacio e Pepe – An icon of Roman cuisine, this dish uses few ingredients to create a comforting meal. The creamy pecorino sauce is usually combined with long types of pasta, and complements the heat of crushed peppercorns.
Bucatini all’Amatriciana – This dish comes from Amatrice in the province of Rieti, Lazio. Whilst the town is famous for this smoky tomato sauce, it also came to the world’s attention in 2016 as it was almost entirely destroyed in a huge earthquake. Since then it’s been busy re-building, and has even called upon the annual Sagra degli spaghetti all’amatriciana to help out with raising funds.
- Malloreddus with sausage ragù and pecorino cream – Pecorino is also produced on the island of Sardinia, where it is used in many pasta dishes. Our recipe uses the Sardinian version of gnocchi - also known as gnocchetti sardi - which are in the shape of tiny bulls (the word malloreddus actually means ‘little bulls’ in Sardinian dialect!). This contrasts the flavours of a rich sausage ragù with the sharpness of pecorino sardo.
Location and History
Grana Padano originates from the area commonly known as ‘Padania’ in Northern Italy, around the Po Valley. More specifically it can be traced back to one particular monastery – Chiaravalle Abbey. According to local tales, this grainy cheese came into being during the 12th century, as monks at the Abbey sought new ways to preserve an abundance of milk. By adding salt and renin to the milk, and cooking over a low heat for a long time, they came up with a delectable cheese that only improved with age.
Like most hard cheeses, the taste of Grana Padano matures over time. Before 16 months of maturation, it has a delicate, milky taste, having yet to develop its trademark graininess. After this, it takes on a sweeter taste and you can distinguish little crystals in its body. Once Grana Padano has been matured for up to and beyond two years, it becomes much more nuanced in its flavours - gaining a buttery depth with nutty tones.
Recipes with Grana Padano
Risotto alla milanese – We have the master glazier of Milan's cathedral to thank for risotto alla Milanese, the creamy rice dish that gets its vivid colour and flavour from saffron. In 1574, the master hired a disciple nicknamed Zafferano because he used saffron to stain the glass gold. The master teased, "You'll be putting saffron in your risotto next!" Well, it happened that his daughter was to be married. At the celebration, a table held four steaming pots of risotto.
Pizzoccheri alla Valtellinese – Nothing says ‘winter’ to me like pizzoccheri alla valtellinese, an Alpine buckwheat pasta dish oozing with melted cheese and winter vegetables. This typically northern dish comes from Valtellina in the uppermost stretches of Lombardia, a fairly narrow valley region running northeast from the Lago di Como along the border with Switzerland.
- Legumes and cereal zuppa – This robust soup, packed with seasonal vegetables and aromatic herbs, is a perfect recipe for those chilly winter days. Characteristic of la cucina povera, the rind of the Grana Padano is added to the simmering soup to add a nutty depth – and to ensure that no part of this delectable cheese goes to waste.
Location and History
Quite possibly the most well-known Italian cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano has similar origins to Grana Padano. It was first concocted by monks in the Middle Ages as a way to use excess milk, before being produced by noble families around the areas of Parma and Reggio. Its fame soon spread around Italy and beyond. The first recorded reference to the cheese was in 1254, with a story of a noblewoman from Genoa that traded her house in exchange for an annual guarantee of 53 pounds of the stuff.
As with the other cheeses included in this post, Parmigiano Reggiano’s flavours develop as it ages. The minimum duration for the maturation of the cheese is 12 months, at which point it has a delicate flavour with smooth notes of yoghurt and fresh fruit and a soft texture. Over time it builds greater depth – giving off nuttier tones. Ultimately, with around 30-36 months of maturation, Parmigiano Reggiano takes on a slightly spicy flavour, which melts away as it crumbles on the palate.
Recipes with Parmigiano Reggiano
Pasta Evangelists’ ‘Carbonara of Dreams’ – Our interpretation of this Roman dish brings together the intensity of Parmigiano Reggiano with pancetta and sumptuous strands of bucatini. Although contentious, we add a dash of cream to make it that more lavish.
Pesto alla Genovese – Hailing from the Northern region of Liguria, this classic pesto uses pine nuts, handfuls of freshly-torn basil leaves, cloves of wild garlic, and, of course, bountiful helpings of Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Tagliatelle al ragú alla bolognese – The classic ragù alla bolognese is best served with ribbons of tagliatelle. The depth of the beef sauce, slow-cooked in red wine, is beautifully contrasted with a healthy grating of the local Parmigiano Reggiano.
The key to good Italian food is using a handful of high-quality ingredients. Choosing the right cheese for your pasta dish is fundamental – it can provide the tangy zing for the tip of your tongue or a nutty depth on which to build other flavours. With our article, you should be able to distinguish between three of Italy’s most common – Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano Reggiano, and select the one that’s right for your pasta dish.
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