Americans are fond of melting cheese over many a red-sauced dish; we love Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, Ricotta and Provolone, for all their gooey magic. But to impress a dinner guest with a phenomenal and truly original Italian cheese plate, we look to Tina Marcelli, who along with her father and brother at Marcelli Formaggi, is bringing far more exotic Italian cheeses stateside. The Marcellis import their family’s rare cheeses into the US, and chefs at highly acclaimed Manhattan restaurants have clamoured for it. The kitchens at Marta and Del Posto, among others, have invented some delicious ways to serve it, from cheese plate "flights" to melting over everything from duck to ice cream.
Her own education started In 2005, when she and her family made a pilgrimage to their ancestral home in Anversa degli Abruzzi, which dates back to the 1500s, and is still an operating sheep farm. They discovered a wealth of rare, artisanal cheese still being made by age-old practices, where the sheep graze in the meadows of Gran Sasso mountain range, eating wild mint, rosemary, oregano, fennel, and juniper, which gives their cheese its unique flavors.
More cheese is always better
Variety is the key to any cheese plate. "Keep it simple, and think two things: breeds and age. Different breeds equal hugely different flavors and textures so try to select a cow's milk cheese, as well as a sheep’s milk cheese and goat," says Marcelli, "Now think age – grab some fresh cheese such as Mozzarella or a young Ricotta, as well as other more-aged and firmer cheeses such as Pecorinos or Caciocavallos."
Pay attention to the temperature
Marcelli recommends serving your selections slightly above room temperature, which allows the cheese to retain its intended texture and deliver its full taste. Cheese that is too cold can become brittle and the flavor is dulled; at warmer than room temp, cheese can become runny and too soft.
Pairing is key…
And leave a little room on your board for something extra. "Honey and cheese are made for each other," says Marcelli. "Think Sunflower honey, as well as Cherry Blossom, Chestnut, Orange Blossom and Honeysuckle honeys – they all are incredible with cheese."
…But don't go crazy
The only way to go wrong, really, is by overwhelming the palate. "Stay away from spicy items that will overpower your mouth and not allow you to really taste and experience the flavor of the cheese."
Most importantly, don't forget the wine
Perhaps the most impressive bit of pairing is the wine. "The lighter the cheese, whether in flavor or density, the lighter the wine. The bolder the cheese through age, the more robust the wine," says Marcelli. "Young cheeses such as our 2-month ricottas pair well with very light-bodied wines such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc for goat cheeses. For any of our Pecorino's, we would suggest pairing with a fuller bodied wine such as Valpolicella or Chianti."
Remember: cheese and wine are the consummate couple, and should compliment each other, not overpower one another.