Is Pecorino Romano from Italy worth seeking out, or can domestic options do the job?
Published Mar. 1, 2018. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Seafood Two Ways
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.
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...
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.