A creamy, porcelain-white cheese, so rich that it's just a short leap from butter, is an unlikely but effective symbol for Italian cheese in America.
Mascarpone, elevated to fame through a gloriously gooey dessert called tiramisu, has whetted appetites that are apparently unham- pered by a price tag of $10 a pound and a fat content that would make a cardi- ologist cringe.
But it's not just a passing fad or the newest creation to come out of a trendy kitchen.
Mascarpone, written about in Italy more than 800 years ago, is one of a handful of Italian cheeses that are capturing American fancy. And while names like robiolla, caciotta and caciocavallo may not roll off the tongue as easily or quickly as brie and boursin, the taste for Italian cheese is growing beyond Parmesan and mozzarella.
Their popularity is part of a much larger American trend. From fashion to food, we are breathlessly fascinated with Italy, thus ensuring that formaggio has found its place on the stage, joining other Italian favorites such as pasta, gelato, espresso, biscotti, focaccia and pesto.
"Americans are great embracers of the world and right now, we're onto Italian," says Lynne Rossetto-Kasper, author of "The Splendid Table," a book on the food of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.
"We're unique in that way. You don't go to France and find cases filled with Italian cheeses, but Americans are so enthusiastic and so curious about the ways of other cultures. The American appetite for Italian knows no bounds."
Cheese is one of the cornerstones of the Italian table and to fully understand its venerable position, notions of cheese singles, Velveeta and how Americans use cheese must be set aside.
Cheese is integral to Italian cuisine, Ms. Rossetto-Kasper says. "It's not just added as a garnish or afterthought. Cheese and how it's paired with foods is carefully thought out. It's very much a part of the culinary tradition."
Italians like cheese more than we do -- or at least they eat more of it. According to the Italian Trade Commission, annual per capita consumption is about 35 1/2 pounds in Italy, compared to 28 pounds here. And sure, they grate some over pasta (but not always and never on seafood and pasta pairings) and occasionally melt some on pizza, but they're also eating big slices of it with coarse, peasant bread and olive oil as a meal or having it after dinner, in lieu of sweet desserts.
Mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano -- more familiarly known here as Parmesan -- are the most famous Italian cheeses on these shores. The behemoth is mozzarella, a taste that's fueled by a never-ending appetite for pizza. It's estimated that roughly 80 percent of Italian and Italian-style cheese consumed in the United States is this stringy white cheese that melts atop pizza. Parmesan comes in second. But there are roughly 400 other types made in Italy, some obscure regional varieties, others more universally known.
Sandy Carr, author of "Pocket Guide to Cheese," writes that this marvelous range is a product of location and creation.
"Quite apart from native Italian inventiveness, the geography of the country lends itself to a wide variety of cheeses, stretching as it does from the sweet Alpine pastures, down the mountainous leg of Italy almost as far as Africa."
They've also spent centuries perfecting the art. In "Foods of Italy," Waverley Root wrote that Latin shepherds had meager goods on which to base a cuisine -- only their woolly charges. From their milk came the earliest renderings of pecorino and ricotta, and the beginnings of a long, luscious heritage of cheesemaking. Sheep's-milk cheeses are still the most common there, but the milk of buffalo, goats and cows is churned into great cheeses too.
Cacio all' Argentera
Makes 4 appetizer servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1/2 pound caciocavallo or provolone cheese, cut in 2 slices
1 tablespoon balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon each: fresh minced sage and rosemary
cracked black pepper
Italian bread for serving
Heat oil and garlic in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot, remove garlic. Add cheese and cook until it begins to soften slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully turn over the slices with a metal spatula. Cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add vinegar, adding it to the bottom of the pan instead of on top of the cheese. Scatter herbs over and remove from heat.
To serve, transfer the cheese to a large serving plate and sprinkle generously with pepper. Pour contents of pan around the cheese. Serve with bread to spread the cheese on.
Per serving (without bread): 262 calories, 22 g fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 2 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein.
Artichoke frittata with fontina
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup coarse, homemade bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
crushed red pepper flakes to taste
2 medium artichokes
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 large eggs
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons mixed minced fresh herbs, such as oregano, sage and basil
2 ounces fontina cheese, cut in small bits
Mix bread crumbs, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Trim away the leaves and the fuzzy choke from the artichokes. Cut bottoms lengthwise into thin slices. Add slices to bread crumbs and toss so they are well coated.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add artichoke mixture to hot oil. Cook, stirring often, until artichoke slices are crisp and brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Wipe out pan with a paper towel.
Heat broiler, placing rack 6 inches from heat source. Whisk eggs, egg whites, herbs, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper flakes to taste in a bowl. Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in the same skillet over medium heat. When hot, add egg mixture. Arrange the artichoke slices and cheese over eggs.
Cook until eggs begin to set at the edges. As eggs cook, lift the edges with a spatula so the soft center flows underneath. When all but the center is lightly set, transfer the pan to the broiler and cook just until set, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Per serving: 285 calories, 21 g fat, 285 mg cholesterol, 555 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrate, 16 g protein.
This simple recipe is adapted from one by Marcella Hazan. She credits it to her husband, who insists that the secret to its success is the order in which the ingredients are added to the pasta, with each adding a subtle layer of taste. The other secret, of course, is to use the best ingredients possible.
Spaghetti with butter and cheese
Makes 4 servings
1 pound spaghetti
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons whipping cream
salt, freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano
Put a sturdy ceramic pasta bowl in the oven set to the lowest setting. Cook spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well and transfer to heated bowl.
Immediately add half of Parmigiano Reggiano and toss until cheese melts. Add butter and toss until butter melts. Add cream and remaining Parmigiano Reggiano and salt and pepper. Toss 6 to 8 times. Sprinkle pecorino Romano over the top, add additional pepper and serve at once.
Per serving: 685 calories, 23 g fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 545 mg sodium, 91 g carbohydrate, 28 g protein