Pasta Filata: it’s kind of fun to say. And wouldn’t you know, this family of cheeses is also fun to eat!
Pasta filata is Italian for “spun paste,” meaning that the cheeses’ curds are spun, or stretched, before the cheeses are aged (if they are aged). Filata means “string” or “thread,” and can be translated directly into English as “filament”–FILAment, FILAta, get it?
Most of us are introduced earliest in life to the member of this family known as string cheese; the most famous is mozzarella. Other cheeses belonging to this group include Burrata, Provolone, Caciocavallo, Scamorza, and Queso Oaxaca.
Want to know how to say them properly? Here you go:
The unifying factor among these cheeses is, of course, how they are produced. Type-specific variations aside, the cheeses are mostly all made from curd that is cut and drained before the curd is then heated and stretched. To illustrate one difference, for example, Provolone is brined before it is aged.
Fresher variants, such as Mozzarella and Burrata, are meant to be eaten within roughly five days of their manufacture. Scamorza tends to fall in the semifirm range, aged for about two weeks or so. Provolone and Caciocavallo can range from semifirm to hard, aging for a few weeks to well over a year.
It is common to find smoked versions of Mozzarella, Scamorza, Caciocavallo, and Provolone. Braided mozzarellas and scamorzas are also not out of the ordinary.
All of these cheeses, except for Queso Oaxaca, which hails from Oaxaca, Mexico, have their provenance in the Southern Italian regions of Campania, Basilicata, and Puglia. But Scamorza is now commonly made in Lombardy, far to the north of Italy, and versions of Caciocavallo have been made for ages not only in Italy, but also throughout the Balkan states of southeastern Europe.
While all of these cheeses are most commonly made from cow’s milk, it is not uncommon to find Caciocavallo made from sheep’s milk, and the most famous buffalo milk cheese in the US is Mozzarella di Buffala.
Provolone, which is a subfamily of cheeses, is characterized by those cheeses’ pear shape (Prova means “globular” in Campanian Italian dialect). Provolones can resemble small, lumpy melons or weigh up to 200 pounds.
Provolone, Scamorza, and Caciocavallo are all hung with rope or twine to age. Scamorzas usually look like they are hanging from a little noose, which is referred to also in the Italian meaning of their name: “beheaded.” Caciocavallo, which means “cheese on horseback,” is usually aged with two cheeses tied to opposite ends of a rope being suspended over a wooden board—as if they were hung over the sides of a horse’s back.
I think a lot of Americans tend to see Mozzarella as something they eat melted on pizza or pasta. But as the craze for Burrata in my shop seems to imply, many are also starting to see these fresher Pasta Filata cheeses as something worth eating, well, fresh.
Caprese salad is one common treatment of Mozzarella, but Mozzarella doesn’t need tomatoes to be cool. A good Mozzarella (or Burrata) can hold its own on your cheese board, or with a drizzle of olive oil and some good salt.
Similarly, provolone isn’t just for sandwiches (the only application I ever seem to hear people having in their search for the cheese). Aged provolones are strong and spicy, and can add a punch to your cheese plate or to a salad, roasted vegetables, you name it.
I could also see provolones of different ages going pretty well with summer fruits, depending on how strong the cheeses are and how you want to balance out the sweetness of the fruit. Cacicavallo and Scamorza both go quite well with fruit, but are also great in salads (think about the term broadly here—not just greens, but also pastas, roasted veggies, alternative grains, etc.).
And frankly, Scamorza is an awesome melter for grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, on roasted cauliflower, and so on and so forth.
If you needed another reason to try out Pasta Filata cheeses in some applications beyond pizza-pasta-caprese, there were some pretty great cheeses from the family that brought home ribbons from the ACS judging this year.
Oklahoma cheesemaker Loveras Market has some fine-tasting Caciocavera (third place in Pasta Filata Types), Hickory-Smoked Braided Caciocavera (first place in Smoked Italian Styles), and Hickory Smoked Caciocavera (second place in Smoked Italian styles).
Washington’s own Ferndale Farmstead Cheese has some award-winning Scamorza (second place in Mozarella Types), and they also produce a smoked-Scamorza that is both adorable and delicious.
Burrata lovers should rejoice if they can get their hands on some of Massachusetts cheesemaker Liuzzi Cheese’s first-place winning Burrata, or the second-place Burrata from Maplebrook Farm in Vermont. Very exciting is also the third-place tie in the Burrata judging category, which begs a side-by-side taste test of Buf Creamery’s Buf Burrata (Virginia), Calabro Cheese’s Burrata (Connecticut), and Toscana Cheese’s Burrata (New Jersey).
When it comes to the fresh Pasta Filata types, try to find them as locally made as you can. The fresher they are, the better they will be. As for their more aged brethren, get what you can find, eat, compare, and pair away.