Yesterday, I looked in the dairy section of my workplace's walk-in refrigerator, as I often do, for inspiration for this column. There sat a sad wedge of provolone, and I pulled it out, along with a small knife. Little by little, it began to disappear. (I use the passive voice here in order not to incriminate myself and my weakness for cheese — be it even the pathetic-looking leftovers.)
There's good, there's bad, and there's better when it comes to provolone cheese. And so, if you've never had the tasty versions — from large, aged, Italian wheels — you'd have no reason to understand why it can be so snackable.
Indeed, it was easy to hack away and snack at the thing. I'd even go so far as to say it was delicious, in its own special way. In Italy, provolone is considered to be among the most vital of cheese staples. And in American-Italian food traditions, it's a necessity.
Good provolone is called provolone piccante, and what you might not know is that it's actually quite closely related to mozzarella. It's a pulled-curd cheese, meaning that the warm curds of cheese are literally pulled into elastic bands of cheese. Rather than served fresh, like mozzarella or burrata, these elasticized strings of curd are then formed into wheels, brined in a salty bath, and aged.
Provolone, like all pulled curd cheeses, is great — and more intense in flavor — when melted. Think hoagies, casseroles, panini, pizza, and baked pasta dishes. In the North of Italy, from where it hails, it's a straight-up, no-nonsense table cheese, and does superb work standing up to big, Northern Italian reds. While it'd never be classified as a stinky cheese, It's not subtle, either. There's a strength in its body that shines through in its hefty salt content, rich milkiness, and compact paste.
Grocery store, pre-packaged and pre-sliced provolone, or what you might find behind deli counters, is about as far from authentic provolone as it gets. The Italians would tell these rubbery, insipid provolones to vai via; there's truly no place for them in the lexicon of great Italian cheeses. Its efforts to approximate true provolone are evident perhaps in its creaminess and smoothness, but not in its flavor. Grocery store versions, as far as I'm concerned, should be named fauxvolone.
So seek out either provolone dolce, a mildly nutty incarnation, with a satisfyingly salty bite, or the more aged versions of provolone, referred to as provolone piccante, which can be aged up to three years. The piccante is beefier, sharper, and saltier. And piccante, it is: long after it's gone from your tongue, you'll be left with a prickly sensation, nearly spicy.
Perhaps it's for this reason that provolone is so often matched with spicy sopressatas, olives, roasted red peppers, and that pickled spicy giardiniera mix of cauliflower, carrots, celery, and green peppers. All of these condiments can match the intensity of provolone. Or, at least, provolone autentico.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.