Cheese has a fundamental role in Sicilian cooking. Pasta & rice dishes mostly include cheese. Stuffings (and we love stuffing things) nearly always feature at least one cheese. And of course, we just eat cheese, as a snack, an antipasto, a contorno, in a salad, or as a course all on its own – maybe even as a meal, with olives and bread.
For us, cooking Sicilian food outside of Sicily, the traditional cheeses are just not widely available. When you do find one, it’s often crazy expensive, past its prime, or (shockingly) both.
If the goal is to recreate traditional flavors, it’s important to understand what we’re changing by adapting a key ingredient like cheese. Let’s break down a few categories and discuss alternatives: cheeses can be categorized a hundred different ways, but we can (unscientifically) identify three main types, and I’ll try to use examples most people have heard of:
- Grating cheeses that you would grate over pasta, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano, normally aged 6 months or more (possibly much, much more)
- Table cheeses that you might eat by themselves, like provolone, Brigante, or those soft pecorinos with olives or pistachios or red peppers mixed in – these are typically aged between 20 and 60 days
- Fresh cheeses that you might make into a sauce or dessert, like ricotta (though in Sicily not considered a cheese), mascarpone, or even cream cheese, known in Italy as “FIladelfia” (how awesome is that?)
The grating cheese is the most important one to address, and it’s the one we’ll focus on today, because grated cheese is everywhere and there is simply nothing else quite like Sicilian grating cheeses. The main traditional types would be pecorino siciliano stagionato (aged pecorino, from sheep’s milk), and its brother pepato (the same cheese with black peppercorns added); or, from cow’s milk, caciocavallo stagionato (aged caciocavallo [kah-cho-kah-VAHL-oh]). Much less common but still a top pick for grating cheeses would be piacentino ennese [pya-chen-TEE-noh en-NAYZ-eh], an aged sheep’s milk cheese (from the town of Enna) flavored with saffron and whole black peppercorns (used widely in Eastern & Central Sicily, not so much in the West).
Ricotta salata (salted ricotta, aged anywhere from ten to thirty days, usually made from sheep’s milk in the West & cow’s in the East) is also an important grating cheese, even if it has a much lighter texture. There’s no real substitute for ricotta salata but it’s available at Italian delis, well stocked supermarkets and cheese shops in most places.
Caciocavallo and even Piacentino can be substituted with something like Grana Padano (cow), Parmigiano-Reggiano (cow), Gransardo (sheep but mild), etc. If you already prefer the flavor or price of one of these cheeses, you should definitely use that one.
Pecorino is another story.
Aged pecorino of one kind or another is available everywhere, and in most places, the best known is pecorino romano. The problem is pecorino romano doesn’t taste anything like pecorino siciliano. Romano is salty, crazy salty, with what I find to be a kind of indistinct aged-cheese taste, and a strong smell (choose your disgusting metaphor for aged cheeses – feet, gym socks, etc.). Pecorino siciliano also smells pretty bad but it literally smells like a sheep. If you’ve ever been to a petting zoo, it smells like that. I know that doesn’t sound super appetizing but trust me, it brings a meaty richness to the dishes it makes its way into. Pecorino romano, while a good cheese in its own right, is not a good substitute.
Fortunately there are a couple of widely available cheeses that capture the essence, if not the intensity, of pecorino siciliano. For me, the best of these is fiore sardo from Sardinia [FYO-reh SAHR-doh], normally aged six months for its grating version. It has the right sheepy smell and rich texture, even if it’s a more gentle and elegant cheese than a typical siciliano. It can be pricey but nowhere near the cost of parmigiano.
The Italian-American deli staple pecorino crotonese from Calabria is also a good sheepy alternative, even in its younger incarnation that may seem a little too soft for fine grating (it’s not). Definitely wins first runner-up.
Finally, as American pesto recipes first recommended in the 70’s, a mixture of equal or nearly equal parts of parmigiano-reggiano & pecorino romano will deliver a rich roundness and a salty sharpness, even if neither is fully satisfying and lacking in sheepiness. It’s not what Marcella Hazan would have described as an “entirely satisfactory substitute” but it will get the job done.
I really want to point out here that these cheeses will give you the most Sicilian results, but any similar and quality cheese will make you a good dish (we are not talking about the “Parmesan Cheese” in the cardboard tube). Even in Sicily, some people just don’t like the stronger traditional cheeses and prefer to use parmigiano or other grana, giving their Sicilian cooking a more Italian taste and texture. Sometimes it’s just easier to pick up what’s at the supermarket than go to the caseficio. When I’m busy, pretty much everything gets made with grana padano, because at my supermarket (which does not have the best cheese selection in Germany) the deli counter closes early and you can get Grana Padano from the refrigerator case (assuming I’ve run out of the pecorino we drag back with us from the homeland).
Do you have a favorite grating cheese? Let us know what it is & why!