Monthly Archives: May 2012

Italian Food Rules – No Cheese on Fish

Filet o' Fish with Cheese
Filet o’ Fish with Cheese

Except for ordering a cappuccino or a caffellatte after your dinner, nothing is more likely to raise the ire of your Italian waiter than to ask for some grated parmesan to go on your spaghetti alle vongole or pasta al baccala’.

So, as you drive down Interstate 5 munching on your Filet o’ Fish with extra cheese, remember the Italian Food Rule: No Cheese On Fish.

The reasons for the rule are: logic, location, and tradition. But can there be change on the horizon?


Except for salt cod (baccala’), canned tuna, cured sardines and anchovies (acciughe), Italians believe fish should be eaten fresh, as close to the place and time that it is caught. Fish from the seas and rivers of Italy is mild tasting, delicate and needs to be treated with a light touch when it comes to seasoning. The milky saltiness of cheese will overwhelm the flavor of the fish. And fishy cheese is just hard to contemplate, much less swallow.

Hard to imagine but the lunch of choice in a combo of fish sticks and cheese
Hard to imagine, but the lunch of choice is a combo of fish sticks and cheese

But, you might argue, what about all of those strong flavors that are acceptable when cooking fish: capers, lemon, tomato, rosemary, fennel, olive, garlic, etc.?


On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese ...
On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese …

Italian cheese producing regions tends to be inland and landlocked: parmesan in the north, pecorino in the hills of Tuscany, and buffalo mozzarella to the east and south of Naples. Famed for fish are the Ligurian, Sicilian, Adriatic and Tuscan coastal towns. Italians have been living the Slow Food, zero kilometer lifestyle for centuries, not decades. The recipes celebrate the location and  availability of fresh ingredients: where there is fish there isn’t cheese and visa versa.


Location and tradition meet in the recipes passed down for generations. Italians don’t move far from their places of birth and those places were city-states just 150 years ago. In Livorno, they argue over the types of shellfish and saltwater fish that should go into cacciucco (cheese never enters the discussion). As far as I know, in Bologna everyone is comfortable with adding more cheese on top of a cheesy sauce covering ravioli stuffed with cheese, but no one thinks of filling their ravioli with fish.

Fish swimming in cheese
Fish swimming in cheese

Also, for centuries, tradition dictated that meat and dairy products were forbidden on Friday for religious reasons. Fish was the symbolic and nutritional replacement, but heaven forbade a topping of cheese.

Say It Ain’t So

The Italian Food Rule – No Cheese on Fish – sparks lively debates in the U.S.  Da Silvano, a famous NYC restaurant has printed on the menu, “No cheese served on fish at any time.”  A couple of years ago, competing chef Chuck Hughes was criticized on Iron Chef America when he combined lobster with cheese curds in a poutine (of course, that’s a French dish and what do they know?).

But then there is the guy on the Thinking With Your Stomach blog who came up with a tuna and melted cheese grilled sandwich.

The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese
The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese

Last year, in Bra, Italy, home of the Slow Food movement, at their Cheese 2011 conference one of my favorite seafood chefs, Luciano Zazzeri of La Pineta (on a Tuscan seaside beach) presented a class on matching cheese with fish.

The wry Robert Trachtenberg, writing Just Grate in the NY Times, found the oldest surviving “Sicilian recipe — from around 400 B.C. — for fish: ‘Gut. Discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.’”  He also browbeat famous chefs in Rome and Venice until they admitted to serving fish pastas with cheese added in the kitchen.

Trachtenberg quotes the famed cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who speaks the truth when she said, “‘One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few.’”

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback (United Kingdom) (Italy) (Germany) (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Quake Devastates Italian Cheese Production

Italy was recently reminded that the entire spine of the country is one long fault line, subject to major earthquakes at any time. But it was still surprising that the area north of Bologna was hit so hard. The last major quake in the area occurred in the 14th century.

Centuries of historic architecture lost
Centuries of historic architecture lost

The earthquake that struck northern Italy in the early hours of Sunday morning killed seven people and injured scores of others (mostly those on the night shift) and left scenes of heart-breaking devastation of historic buildings. Even a week later, aftershocks were disrupting the cleanup efforts.

But one of the greatest economic effects is the damage that will affect production and export of some of the area’s most internationally famous cheeses – Parmigiano Reggiano and its rival, Grana Padano.

Clock tower shaken to rubble in Finale, Emilia
Clock tower shaken to rubble in Finale, Emilia

Approximately 300,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano and 100,000 of Grana Padano, each weighing about 40 kg (88 pounds), were damaged when they fell off shelves in warehouses where they were undergoing the two to five year-long seasoning process.

Those who have seen the dawn to dusk process that creates the raw form of the long-seasoned cheeses can appreciate the heartache caused by the destruction of the aging wheels of Parmesan and Grana. This video gives a good review of the process from cow to table.

The cheese ages on high shelves for up to five years
The cheese ages on high shelves for up to five years

Estimates conclude that ten percent of the production of Parmigiano Reggiano and two percent of Grana Padano was affected by the quake.

At a retail price of up to 25 euros a kg ($15.00 a pound) in Italy and (much) more abroad, Parmigiano Reggiano is one of Italy’s most expensive cheeses. The area produces 3.3 million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano a year.

The 6.0 earthquake caused the heavy wheels to collapse seven-meter (23 feet)-high shelves. They piled like dominos or a set of overturned bookshelves.

Parmesan cheese destroyed by 6.0 earthquake
Parmesan cheese destroyed by 6.0 earthquake

“We’ve lost two years of work,” said Lorenza Caretti, whose family runs the Sant’ Angelo cheese cooperative in the town of San Giovanni in Persiceto. (Reuters)

“We may be able to sell some of it for use in melted cheese products, but that has only 20 percent of the value of the real thing.”  She said 22,000 wheels of hard cheese fell over in their warehouse during the quake. “We still can’t see the floor in many places,” she said. “We will be lucky if we can somehow save half of it.”

Production of milk used for cheese making in the area was also affected because many cows died in the collapse of stables or were left traumatized by the quake and its aftershocks, affecting the output and quality of milk.

A worker surveys the loss of thousands of wheels of cheese
A worker surveys the loss of thousands of wheels of cheese

Production of the Emilia-Romagna region’s famed Prosciutto di Parma (seasoned Parma ham) was not seriously affected by the quake, an official of the Prosciutto di Parma consortium said.  While some pig farmers in the quake area saw their herds killed or injured, most of the pigs come from other parts of northern Italy and only the production process itself takes place in the Parma area, which was not hit.