Pecorino is often misunderstood. To those who buy it in American supermarkets, it’s a dry, tangy, oversalted hard cheese that’s hardly fit for grating onto pasta let alone enjoying with wine and crackers. But there’s much more to pecorino than meets the aisles. There are dozens of varieties, each with its own texture and flavor. In some of its best versions, pecorino is a rich, earthy, pleasantly sharp and peppery cheese with a firm yet creamy texture that’s perfect for nibbling.
Pecorino (derived from pecora, Italian for sheep) is a sheep’s milk cheese that’s been produced all over central and southern Italy since well before the rise of the Roman Empire. Made with either pasteurized or unpasteurized milk, pecorino can be aged anywhere from 20 days—resulting in a soft-textured, mild-flavored cheese with an edible rind—to up to a year for harder, more pungent cheeses. Its many varieties are grouped into four main government-protected regional categories (D.O.P.) subject to strict production rules: Toscano, made in Tuscany; Sardo, from the island of Sardinia; Siciliano, produced in Sicily; and Romano, mainly from the countryside around Rome.
The last, which is saltier than other pecorinos, is primarily a grating cheese when aged. The mass-produced pecorinos we’re used to seeing in grocery stores are also romanos, but they’re a far cry from their artisanal cousins.
What we tasted
We tasted ten kinds of artisanal pecorinos alongside a couple of supermarket brands. Our favorites among the artisanal table cheeses were a tangy, buttery, medium-aged Pecorino Toscano from Mugello and a peppery, deep-flavored, medium-aged Pecorino Sardo Moliterno. An aged Pecorino Toscano from Pienza was also pleasantly nutty and rich. Between the two supermarket brands we tasted, Boar’s Head imported Romano was less sharp and salty than Locatelli. For grating and tossing with pasta, we recommend an artisanal Pecorino Romano.
A good cheese shop might carry several varieties of pecorino; if you’re in New York City, check out the shop where we bought our pecorinos, which has a wonderful selection but does not offer mail order: Di Palo Fine Foods, 200 Grand Street, New York (212-226-1033). Good mail-order sources for high-quality pecorino include Formaggio Kitchen, Murray’s Cheese, and A.G. Ferrari Foods.