At DITALIA, we often get a lot of questions about Italian meat and cheese pairings. “Am I doing this the right way?” “Is this authentic?” Fear not! There’s no right or wrong when it comes to pairing meats and cheeses! Just listen to your tastebuds. But first, it’s important to learn a little bit about your Italian meats and cheeses!
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to Italian meat and cheese pairings! Just listen to your tastebuds.
1. Know your textures
First, it’s important to understand meat and cheese as a texture experience!
Whole Muscle Meats
With whole muscle meats, texture is a matter of muscle structure. Cured meats like Prosciutto di Parma, Coppa, and Pancetta are whole muscle meats that use whole parts of the animal. For instance, Prosciutto is made from the hind leg of a pig. Once cut, whole muscle meats are seasoned and either air-dried or cured. The result? A velvety soft texture, especially when thinly sliced.
Encased meats include salumi like Cacciatore and sausages like Salsiccia. By definition, encased meats are ground (often fermented) and wrapped into a casing. They can range from slightly dense to soft and crumbly.
We’ll cover the basic textures here: hard, semi-soft, and soft. Hard cheeses include Italian classics like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano. These cheeses have a firmer texture and, when sliced, crumble into small coarse pieces. Semi-soft cheeses like Provolone, Fontina, Ubriaco di Raboso, and Caciocavallo are buttery, yet structured in their texture. Soft cheeses are spreadable and very crumbly. Some of our favorites include Bel Paese and Gorgonzola.
2. Know your flavors
Whole Muscle Meats
These meats have a light sweetness that complements their saltiness. Often, butchers say they have a nutty flavor. Compared to encased meats, whole muscle meats have a “purer” meat flavor.
Because they’re often fermented, encased meats have a slight tartness. Also, it’s important to understand what spices are in the particular meat too! Cracked black pepper, fennel, oregano, sea salt, cayenne, and more can add additional nuance.
There’s a lot of cheese out there…a lot! As a general rule, it’s important to pay attention to the aged-ness and tartness of the cheese, as well as how it expresses sweet dairy flavors. If you choose the right cheese, you can even create a complement or contrast with the spices and tartness of certain meats. We’ll delve into this next!
3. Find contrasts and complements
Let’s start with one of the classic Italian meat and cheese pairings: Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. We all know this pairing is delicious, but why does it work? Excuse us as we get a little poetic…
Excuse us as we get a little poetic…
The soft, ribbony texture of prosciutto contrasts well with the firm snap of Parmigiano. They enhance each other‘s nutty, salty flavors. The milky flavor of Parmigiano contrasts well with the mild “tang” of prosciutto.
Additionally, both Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano are produced in the same region, Parma. In fact, the pigs used to make Prosciutto are fed the whey left over from the production of Parmigiano. Now that’s a pairing!
This idea of “contrasting” and “complementing” is a helpful way to thinking about pairings.
If you’re tasting a smoked sausage, you might want to pair it with a more subdued cheese like Caciocavera. If you’re enjoying a soft spreadable cheese like ricotta, its texture and flavor could be enhanced by a firm, spicy chorizo.
We also suggest matching based on region. Cheeses and meats that are both specialties of the same region are often great pairings. If the locals eat them together, why not do the same?
This is just the beginning…the possibilities are endless!
4. Play with garnishes and spreads
Once you’re comfortable with meats and cheeses, why not introduce a few garnishes and spreads? Honeys, sun-dried tomatoes, unique spreads like Mostarda d’Uva, balsamic…you name it! It all adds more flavors to the party! We encourage you to slice some meat, cut some cheese, open some spreads, and experiment!