To those who buy it in American supermarkets, pecorino is often a dry, tangy, oversalted hard cheese that's hardly fit for grating onto pasta. But 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.