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The Best Pecorino Romano Cheese
Is Pecorino Romano from Italy worth seeking out, or can domestic options do the job?
What You Need To Know
Pecorino Romano is like the seasoned character actor who improves dozens of movies but never quite gets recognition. It’s one of the oldest cheeses in the world, named for its origins in ancient Rome, and its firm, slightly oily, crystalline texture and salty, funky flavor deserve fresh consideration out of the shadow of its more famous cousin, Parmigiano‑Reggiano. In the test kitchen, we use it in a number of salads, vegetable dishes, soups, and frittatas, not to mention classic Italian pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe, pasta all’amatriciana, and lasagna, where its rich, complex flavor is a quiet powerhouse.
But does it matter which cheese you bring home? We chose seven nationally available versions priced from $0.67 to $1.33 per ounce. In supermarkets, you’ll find cheese labeled Pecorino Romano and Romano sold side by side, so we included both. In blind tastings, we asked panels to evaluate the cheeses both plain and cooked in our recipe for Spaghetti with Pecorino and Black Pepper (Cacio e Pepe). To help us understand our preferences, we sent samples to an independent laboratory to measure their pH and compared the nutrition content provided on product labels.
Pecorino Romano versus Romano: What’s the Difference?
With Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) status in the European Union, the cheese called Pecorino Romano can be made only in Lazio (the province that includes Rome), in Grosseto in Tuscany, and on the island of Sardinia, where most of it is produced today. It’s made with sheep’s milk (pecora means “sheep” in Italian) from local flocks that is heated and curdled with rennet from local lambs. Then the cheese is pressed, rubbed repeatedly with salt, stamped with identifying marks, and aged, all according to the standards of a consortium that oversees its production. This results in a unique cheese that is important in central and southern Italian and Italian American cooking. As early as 1911, Italian immigrants were ordering it shipped to America. Today, Italy produces 25,000 tons of the cheese per year; 60 percent of that is exported, and the top buyer is the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, Pecorino Romano accounts for a third of all Italian cheese exported to America. American cheesemakers, however, lacking access to sheep’s milk on an industrial scale, make Romano cheese with cow’s milk.
In both blind tastings, plain and in pasta, our tasters preferred imported Pecorino Romanos over domestic Romanos. While we didn’t dislike the domestic cheeses, our consensus was that they were simply not the same: milder, softer, less aromatic, and more like Swiss cheese than sharper, funkier, more crumbly, cryst...
Everything We Tested
“Delicious! Rich, complex, deeply savory, with a long finish” and a “crystalline” crunch, this imported sheep's-milk Pecorino Romano sold under the Boar's Head banner was “dense, nicely dry, salty in a fruity, fatty kind of way” and was our tasters' overall favorite. It also had by far the highest sodium level in our lineup, adding to its savory appeal. In pasta, it was “smooth,” “pungent, salty, and sharp,” with “the perfect taste and creamy texture I've been looking for! Silky, tangy, cheesy, creamy, assertive.”
“Full-flavored, complex, crystalline, crumbly, pungent, salty; just right,” this imported sheep's-milk Pecorino Romano had a “lovely sheepy, briny flavor” that was “Robust! Salty! Addictive!” and “deeply savory, almost meaty, with a fatty richness” and a “slightly crumbly texture.” Tasters found it “funky, but in a good way.” In spaghetti, it was “silky,” “velvety,” “creamy and buttery” —the “strong, lovely cheese flavor makes this dish sing.”
With “lots of crystals,” this “salty, rich, funky” cheese was “almost crunchy” and “pleasingly pungent” when nibbled plain, coming across as “creamy and milky and salty without being overbearing.” Its “coarse texture” was described as “perfect for grating.” “It's like the other great Pecorinos but a touch more subdued instead of knock-you-out salty/funky.” In spaghetti, the cheese's flavor was “a little mild” compared with those of other samples, but it helped achieve a “good balance of salt and cheese and pepper, all working in harmony.”
With “a little kick!” and “some funk on the finish,” this imported Pecorino Romano won fans. “Oh, this is just lovely,” wrote one taster. “Firm and crumbly yet also creamy. It's grassy and fruity, with sweet winey notes and some crystalline crunch.” On spaghetti, the fruity notes came through in a “velvety,” “nutty” sauce.
Recommended with reservations
With “pleasant,” “mild,” “sweet,” “nutty” flavor, this domestic cow's-milk Romano was “very soft” and “not as pungent as it should be,” “very buttery and Parmesan-like,” like “unhole-y Swiss.” “This isn't a bad cheese,” wrote a taster. “It's mild, creamy, and toothsome, with good milkiness.” But others noted that it “could stand to be saltier.” In pasta, it had “nice saucy-ness” and was “smooth, creamy,” making for “kid-friendly noodles, for sure,” but was “really overwhelmed by the pepper.”
This cheese was a bit too “mild overall,” reminiscent of “gouda,” “Gruyère,” or “cheddar.” It was “buttery, creamy, but missing the funk and crumbliness” tasters sought. “I miss the salty bite!” wrote one. “Lacks the intensity I expect, but I don't dislike the sweet, nutty, caramel-y flavor.” A few complained about the texture, noting that it “breaks into pellets.” In pasta, it was “perfectly creamy” and “light,” but its flavor was “muted.”
“Mildly salty,” “fruity,” “soft and slightly creamy,” with a “pebbly” texture when broken and a slightly “sour” flavor with “some tanginess to the finish,” this domestic cow's-milk Romano “eats like cheddar,” “provolone,” or “Swiss cheese.” “This is missing that gritty saltiness I crave,” one taster noted. Others summed it up: “Inoffensive but not beguiling.” In spaghetti, it had “no bite or much saltiness” and “could be more flavorful.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.