Around this time each year, I like to take the opportunity to write about fresh goat cheeses that are in their prime in the spring, when goat milk reaches its peak flavor. But a few days ago, as I sat down to enjoy a soft-ripened mixed-milk Robiola, I thought to myself, “Italian soft cheeses are just as good as fresh goat cheeses in the springtime and receive none of the acclaim!” It set me to thinking about all my favorite soft Italian cheeses that aren’t necessarily fresh or young, but ideal for the season.
The most familiar Italian choices at this time of year are fresh mozzarella and burrata. After a long winter, fresh mozzarella can finally be served with first-of-the-season tomatoes and fragrant basil plucked straight from the garden (or in my case, the farmer’s market!). Pair this classic caprese combination with a crisp glass of Italian white wine – such as a Pinot Grigio from the celebrated Santa Margherita Winery – and you’re sure to have a home run. (Go Giants!) Alternately, try pairing a delectable burrata with peach slices and a glass of prosecco for a simple and refreshing treat.
Another fantastic soft Italian cheese is the aforementioned Robiola, which is the name given to a family of soft-ripened cheeses made in the Piedmont region. Robiola can be made from goat, cow, or sheep’s milk – or a combination of two, or even all three – and is supremely creamy due to its high butterfat content. My personal favorite is the Robiola Rocchetta, a spreadable bloomy rind delicacy that I’ve paired with a number of white wines and, on occasion, even a milder red.
But in my opinion, the best Italian spring cheese is unquestionably ricotta. Bellwether Farms’ Jersey cow milk basket ricotta is my domestically produced favorite; it’s rich, sweet, and perfect for light desserts. For savory dishes – for example, an easy pasta with morel mushrooms – I prefer their sheep’s milk version. As for ricottas straight from Italy, I recently tried the to-die-for Organic Smoked Ricotta with Juniper made by storied cheesemaker Marcelli Formaggi from the Abruzzo region. It was the perfect garnish atop a bowl of cheese ravioli with a sweet red sauce, paired with a beautiful Sangiovese red wine.