During the pandemic, I sold ready-to-eat pasta dinners out of my apartment every Sunday. It was a highly illegal operation, but it was a business nonetheless and it kept my head above water. Here’s how it worked: I prepared fresh pasta and sauce in my kitchen and I ran to-go containers of the stuff out to people in their cars double-parked on my street. I filled roughly 20 orders every Sunday, full of repeat customers, first timers, internet strangers, close friends, and the like. I once, very randomly, even cooked for the band Bon Iver.
Spaghetti and meatballs, oil and garlic, primavera, spicy tomato sauce, baked ziti, fettuccine alfredo, bolognese, and pesto tortellini, just to name a few, were some of the many pasta dinners I sold to customers. And do you know what cheese I put in a little plastic ramekin with each order of pasta? It wasn’t Parmesan. It was Pecorino Romano. Why? To me Pecorino is going the extra mile. I wanted people to be blown away by the bold flavor, and Pecorino did that. I often got comments from customers like, “The cheese is so fluffy!” and “What is this? I know it’s not Parmesan.”
I know you’re probably asking, “Is there really that big of a difference?” I mean, what is the difference between Parmesan and Pecorino Romano, anyway? Well, Parmesan is a hard cow’s milk cheese that’s nutty and slightly salty. It has a fairly mild flavor, and thus is a bit more accessible. Parmesan is the gateway for Americans to experience Italian cheese. But now that the door is open, it’s time to walk through it and embrace Pecorino Romano.
Pecorino Romano is a sheep’s milk cheese that comes from the Lazio region of Italy (home of Rome). It’s hard—though less so than Parmesan—salty, sharp, and used almost exclusively for grating. Its unctuous, tangy, umami-rich qualities immediately add zip and bite to any dish. I used to only use Parmesan, but the older I got, the more I gravitated towards Pecorino Romano. It just has a more unique flavor, as far as I’m concerned. There’s not a grated cheese situation in which I would prefer Parmesan to Pecorino Romano, not anymore. Parmesan, for me, is best when shaved with a vegetable peeler and put into a salad, mixed with meatballs, or even used on a cheese board.
Although, we don’t have to think about cheese in such binaries. Both Parmesan and Pecorino Romano actually work great in unison. Shred some Pecorino Romano and Parmesan together into your meatball mix or mix it with mozzarella as a topping for pizza. The best pizza places, in my opinion, mix some Pecorino Romano into their mozzarella blend. It’s that secret flavor that perks you up and makes you ask, “What’s in here?” For all of Pecorino Romano’s boldness, it’s still a team player.
For me, there’s nothing Pecorino Romano can’t improve. I put it on my eggs. My potatoes. I mix it into dressings and use it to lift up salads. I bet it would vastly improve ramen, too. I tried this carbonara ramen recently, and I’m dying to put a soft boiled egg and some Pecorino Romano on top. Just be warned, it’s not a melting cheese; it is best enjoyed freshly grated.
If you’re like me, and you want to add a bit more salt, taste, and sharpness to your food, ditch the Parm and start using Pecorino Romano. Find a good Italian deli that carries it or check your local Whole Foods. Embrace flavor, boldness, and new experiences. Italian cheese is much, much more than Parmesan. Put some Pecorino Romano in your cheese holster, partner, and draw it when you see fit. You’ll be happy that you did.