BACK in the last century, an Italian sommelier who became a friend spent a fair amount of time in my kitchen, much of it insisting that nearly every iconic American food was made not just first but better in the country of his birth. Apple pie? They had it at crostata. Grilled cheese? Mozzarella en carrozza was the Model A. Meatloaf? They call it polpettone.
Despite his annoying nationalist arrogance, it was impossible to deny he was absolutely right when it came to macaroni and cheese. Pasta ai quattro formaggi not only predates Kraft, it trumps it, big time. Cheese and pasta just go together like a burger and fries.
Starch is comfort. Cheese is seduction. Put them together and you’re asking for pleasure, especially if you eat pasta the way the Italians do, as a first course rather than the main event. A small portion is the perfect size.
My friend Giorgio would never deviate from any of the recipes his great-grandparents followed, but this being America, our national instinct is to reinvent any dish, borrowing an ingredient from Cuisine A and a technique from Cuisine B. Pasta and cheese, in particular, can be tweaked, upgraded and even translated, ingredient by ingredient, almost into infinity.
Now that the cheese aisle has grown so far and so wide, and specialty shops have proliferated, the choices are limitless: You can mix and match with even the classic recipes. Change the cheese and you get something that tastes completely new.
Start with that pasta with four cheeses. Traditionally, in Italy, it is made with some variation on the quartet of Bel Paese, fontina, Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Some recipes use mozzarella instead of fontina, and pecorino Romano instead of Parmigiano.
My personal cheese advisor Steven Jenkins, who wrote the definitive guide “Cheese Primer,” suggests bringing the dish up to 2006 cheese-aisle standards by using a fresh goat’s milk cheese, mascarpone, Gorgonzola dolce and a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain (manchego, Idiazabal, Roncal) or from France (Ossau-Iraty). The combination is almost other-worldly, much more nuanced than the predictable original.
But if you swap out the imports for American cheeses, either uniquely American or Americanized Italian, you get a fascinating flavor combination and a tangible indicator of how far cheese-making has come in this country in the last 20 years.
Instead of Gorgonzola, a domestic blue cheese adds a sharper flavor, especially the Smokey Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon. For the goat cheese, Humboldt Fog has real resonance, but any California chevre would work. A domestic mascarpone, such as the one made by San Diego-based Cantare Foods, and Monterey Jack cheese substituting for the Italian fontina are both mellow and melting enough to counter the other, stronger partners in the sauce.
A fifth flavor
TO make this dish seriously American -- meaning pushing the boundaries just a little further than absolutely necessary -- you can add a fifth cheese, using grated dry Jack such as Vella as a topping at the end. The texture, taste and saltiness are close to Parmigiano-Reggiano but still different.
Melted together with a little cream, the four main ingredients swirl into a sauce to rival a Giorgio-quality quattro formaggi. For the pasta, stick with the traditional penne, and make it the best brand possible, one that will stand up to the serious richness of the sauce.
You could make this with other quartets of cheeses, keeping in mind that you need two that are mellow and/or melt easily, as mascarpone and mozzarella do, and two with flavor that can only be described as robust, like Gorgonzola and chevre. No matter which you choose, you will be eating happily in very short order: The sauce takes half the time it takes to boil the pasta.
Another twist on an Italian classic is more straightforward. Simply substitute a superb fresh cheese for the time-honored and well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or pecorino Romano. As wonderful as both those cheeses are, the American way with cheese is to play around. And ricotta salata has essential characteristics in common with those, particularly its saltiness and perceptible tang.
This is a wondrous cheese, dry and crumbly in a good way. It melts into strands of pasta and, when sprinkled on at the end, stays firm enough to add another level of flavor.
Cheese and tomatoes are always natural partners, but a slow-cooked sauce really stands up to the ricotta salata. Arrabiata, with tomatoes cooked with lots of hot peppers, or amatriciana, with tomatoes slowly simmered with red onion and pancetta, are two excellent choices. Each should be served with a pasta with hollow strands such as bucatini or perciatelli.
The sauce is more of a glaze than a glop, which makes the cheese almost stand alone. Where Parmigiano tends to blend in with either sauce almost as soon as it is grated over, ricotta salata keeps its integrity and its chunkiness to the last bite.
EASILY the most rewarding way to turn an Italian cheese-and-pasta classic into something even jazzier is to translate it into Spanish. Spaghetti carbonara is a spectacular dish made very simply, by tossing the hot pasta with beaten eggs, bacon and Parmigiano; those few ingredients immediately cohere into a rich sauce, without even a hint of cream, that clings to every strand of spaghetti.
It’s hard to beat the way it has been made for centuries, but just looking around the supermarket you can see a better idea. Spanish chorizo substituted for the bacon, and manchego for the Parmigiano will produce a rich and vibrant sauce for spaghetti that tastes like a whole new dish.
The sausage has a sharp spiciness that makes the sauce livelier, while the aged cheese has a distinctive pungency because it is made from sheep’s milk rather than cow’s, as the Parma cheese is. It’s fast and easy enough for a quick dinner but rich and dramatic enough to serve to company.
Once you start playing around with cheese and pasta, the ideas keep coming because there are so many cheeses from which to choose. After you try ricotta salata, you may find yourself using it on every pasta with tomato sauce, even the kind from a jar (instant upgrade).
You could also use manchego or Asiago instead of Parmigiano in fettuccine Alfredo or even pesto sauce. Any cheese that melts well -- Brie, Camembert, Taleggio, Gruyere, Gorgonzola -- can just be heated with cream or whole milk to also make a fast sauce.
One trick Giorgio taught me is to add a tablespoon or so of butter to pasta after it has been cooked and drained well; the tiny bit of lubricant makes any sauce cling, particularly one made with tomatoes.
Another is to toss the pasta with the sauce in the pan in which it cooks, which gives a better coating than pouring the sauce over the pasta in a bowl and trying to mix the two.
He would be horrified to see chorizo and chevre in his revered recipes. But neither is as much of a sin as macaroni and cheese from a box when the real deal is so simple.