How To Be Italian – In 5 Cheese Pairings

Nobody knows how to put together a snack plate like the Italians – when I traveled across the Veneto and through Emilia-Romagna last summer, I loved watching people stroll into piazzas at 4 or 5 p.m. for aperitivo – a pre-dinner glass of wine and a small plate of snacks to stimulate the appetite. The bar bites in Venice and Verona were unsurpassed, and every cheese counter in Bologna offered cheese-and-meat plates to die for.

After the holidays, I find myself returning to those perfect bites – simple combinations made from a few quality ingredients. They’re easy to assemble, and they can turn an afternoon visit with friends of family into something memorable.

From my scrapbook, here are five pairings I plan to resurrect this year. Some of these are classic – like Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic – while others are inspired by the cheesemongers at Di Bruno Bros. who have a knack for mixing Italian tradition with their own creative twists.

1. Serve a wedge of Parm, aged balsamic, and fresh fruit. Then pretend that you are at an elegant hotel in Parma. All you need is a glass of Prosecco, a crisp Pilsner, or a toothsome red wine. This makes a great appetizer for an intimate gathering or a crowd.

2. Take a cue from the Venetians and make cicchetti (chi-KETT-ee) or “little snacks” to serve with Prosecco in the late afternoon. Just toast slider rolls or baguette rounds, top them with a soft cheese (like Mascarpone), and decorate them with savory toppings, like roasted red peppers, capers, shredded cucumber, smoked fish, walnuts, and savory jam. Saveur offers tips for hosting a Venetian cocktail party.

For a Di Bruno Bros. take on cichetti, try topping crostini with tapenade, chopped roasted red pepper, white anchovies, and Parm shavings.

3. Alongside martinis, serve a wedge of Gorgonzola Piccante with Roman artichokes and caper berries. This combo is creamy, briny, and very elegant if you just want to serve a little nosh. Set out a dish of mixed nuts or add thin breadsticks and a plate of cured meats to make it more substantial.

4. For something sweet, serve Gorgonzola Dolce with chocolate-raspberry jam, graham crackers, and crushed coffee beans. This Di Bruno invention is dreamy alongside an espresso. Tell your guests it’s an Italian s’more. And don’t skip the crushed coffee beans on top – they add crunch and a hint of bitterness.

5. After dinner: serve biscotti and Italian dessert wine, like Vin Santo or Passito, with a cheese board. My favorite after-dinner Italian cheese is Testun Malto d’Orzo – a mixed milk hunk packed in whiskey-soaked barley malt. If you can’t find it, ask for Testun al Barolo or Ubriaco. Both are boozy and great for after dinner.

For more pairing ideas, please visit Madame Fromage.