Smiles from Italy Say cheese!: These days, more Americans are delighting over the tastes of Parma and beyond.

November 01, 1995|By Pat Dailey | Pat Dailey,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A creamy, porcelain-white cheese, so rich that it's just a short leap from butter, is an unlikely but effective symbol for Italian cheese in America.

Mascarpone, elevated to fame through a gloriously gooey dessert called tiramisu, has whetted appetites that are apparently unham- pered by a price tag of $10 a pound and a fat content that would make a cardi- ologist cringe.

But it's not just a passing fad or the newest creation to come out of a trendy kitchen.

Mascarpone, written about in Italy more than 800 years ago, is one of a handful of Italian cheeses that are capturing American fancy. And while names like robiolla, caciotta and caciocavallo may not roll off the tongue as easily or quickly as brie and boursin, the taste for Italian cheese is growing beyond Parmesan and mozzarella.

Their popularity is part of a much larger American trend. From fashion to food, we are breathlessly fascinated with Italy, thus ensuring that formaggio has found its place on the stage, joining other Italian favorites such as pasta, gelato, espresso, biscotti, focaccia and pesto.

"Americans are great embracers of the world and right now, we're onto Italian," says Lynne Rossetto-Kasper, author of "The Splendid Table," a book on the food of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

"We're unique in that way. You don't go to France and find cases filled with Italian cheeses, but Americans are so enthusiastic and so curious about the ways of other cultures. The American appetite for Italian knows no bounds."

Cheese is one of the cornerstones of the Italian table and to fully understand its venerable position, notions of cheese singles, Velveeta and how Americans use cheese must be set aside.

Cheese is integral to Italian cuisine, Ms. Rossetto-Kasper says. "It's not just added as a garnish or afterthought. Cheese and how it's paired with foods is carefully thought out. It's very much a part of the culinary tradition."

Italians like cheese more than we do -- or at least they eat more of it. According to the Italian Trade Commission, annual per capita consumption is about 35 1/2 pounds in Italy, compared to 28 pounds here. And sure, they grate some over pasta (but not always and never on seafood and pasta pairings) and occasionally melt some on pizza, but they're also eating big slices of it with coarse, peasant bread and olive oil as a meal or having it after dinner, in lieu of sweet desserts.

Mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano -- more familiarly known here as Parmesan -- are the most famous Italian cheeses on these shores. The behemoth is mozzarella, a taste that's fueled by a never-ending appetite for pizza. It's estimated that roughly 80 percent of Italian and Italian-style cheese consumed in the United States is this stringy white cheese that melts atop pizza. Parmesan comes in second. But there are roughly 400 other types made in Italy, some obscure regional varieties, others more universally known.

Sandy Carr, author of "Pocket Guide to Cheese," writes that this marvelous range is a product of location and creation.

"Quite apart from native Italian inventiveness, the geography of the country lends itself to a wide variety of cheeses, stretching as it does from the sweet Alpine pastures, down the mountainous leg of Italy almost as far as Africa."

They've also spent centuries perfecting the art. In "Foods of Italy," Waverley Root wrote that Latin shepherds had meager goods on which to base a cuisine -- only their woolly charges. From their milk came the earliest renderings of pecorino and ricotta, and the beginnings of a long, luscious heritage of cheesemaking. Sheep's-milk cheeses are still the most common there, but the milk of buffalo, goats and cows is churned into great cheeses too.

Cacio all' Argentera

Makes 4 appetizer servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, cut in half

1/2 pound caciocavallo or provolone cheese, cut in 2 slices

1 tablespoon balsamic or red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon each: fresh minced sage and rosemary

cracked black pepper

Italian bread for serving

Heat oil and garlic in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, remove garlic. Add cheese and cook until it begins to soften slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn over the slices with a metal spatula. Cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add vinegar, adding it to the bottom of the pan instead of on top of the cheese. Scatter herbs over and remove from heat.

To serve, transfer the cheese to a large serving plate and sprinkle generously with pepper. Pour contents of pan around the cheese. Serve with bread to spread the cheese on.

Per serving (without bread): 262 calories, 22 g fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein.

Artichoke frittata with fontina

Makes 4 servings

1/4 cup coarse, homemade bread crumbs

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

crushed red pepper flakes to taste

2 medium artichokes

3 tablespoons olive oil

5 large eggs

2 large egg whites

2 tablespoons mixed minced fresh herbs, such as oregano, sage and basil

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