Formaggio! An Italian-American's guide to choosing the best cheese for your pizza

Often the piece de resistance, cheese deserves careful consideration when you're making homemade pizza

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published October 2, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Pizza in a plate on a table (Getty Images / Igor Shoshin / 500px)
Pizza in a plate on a table (Getty Images / Igor Shoshin / 500px)

Abbondanza — Italian for "abundance" — is a bi-monthly column from writer Michael La Corte in which the author shares his tips for making traditional Italian-American recipes even better.

To me, cheese is insurmountable. To put it plainly, there is no better food. I love it in all of its iterations and permutations: melty, salty, pungent, funky, creamy, caramel-y, deep, rich. The list goes on and on. When it comes to certain cheeses, the sheer tapestry of flavors within just one bite of cheese can be mind boggling.

One of the most ubiquitous and exceptional applications for cheese, of course, is none other than pizza. Is there any food more nostalgic, customizable, familiar and reliable? How many long, challenging days of trials and tribulations have been capped off by an exasperated "let's just order a pizza?" There's a curative element to pizza: the warm, quasi-sodden cardboard box, the oozy cheese, the dependable crust. This reliability is a salve. 

Pizza has gone so much further than an amalgamation of crust, sauce, and cheese — it's a cultural staple that brings satiety, comfort, and flavor, no matter if it's homemade, enjoyed in Roma, frozen, from a chain or from a local, family-owned pizzeria. (And of course, it should go without saying that my standard order is one that comes with an inexplicable amount of cheese — stretching the definition of "extra cheese" to its oily, stretchy, salty borders.)

Now, when it comes to making pizza at home, cheese becomes a challenge. There are so many kinds, so many varieties, so many choices. Even if you're just opting for plain mozzarella, that contains a litany of decisions. Do not fret, though, because here's a primer on "pizza cheeses" and now to best choose cheeses to ensure a successful, delicious pizza night at home.

The cornerstone: mozzarella and variations 

Fresh: Fresh mozzarella. is truly an unbeatable pizza topping. I'd venture for salted over unsalted, but regardless, some fresh mozz on a classic pie is always so welcome. It melts so lushly and beautifully, it browns amazingly and the flavor is always on point. I think both stretching or slicing is fine — just be aware that fresh mozzarella does "spread" quite a bit in the oven. If you're not a cheese aficionado, don't feel the need to cover every single spot before sliding it into the oven; the spreading will cover more than enough territory. 

Bocconcini and ciliegine: These little "pearls" aren't the best mozzarella option. They're usually stored in some sort of water or herbed brine, so be sure to dry them off before adding. Because they're pre-packaged, the herbs are sometimes not at the peak of freshness. Generally, these are best reserved for Caprese salads, pasta salads and other "raw" or cold applications instead of being used on a pizza.

Aside from fresh, I think the ideal mozzarella choice is full-fat, low moisture shredded mozz. Check ingredients to ensure it's just mozzarella — some brands my contain additives or anti-clumping preservatives, which can sometimes adversely affect the flavor. Try to steer clear of those for the cleanest flavor. Part-skim is another choice, but I don't think the flavor sacrifice is necessary for the negligible "health" benefits. As the MTA says, though, "you do you." 

Other cheeses

Provolone: For whatever reason, it's always oddly difficult to find shredded provolone on grocery store shelves. Some store stock an "Italian blend" which may come with some shredded provolone (along with mozz, Parm and sometimes Asiago), and while I'd advise that for something like chicken parmigiana, it can be a bit overwhelming on a pizza. Typically, a more neutral, milk-forward cheese is better, allowing the purity of the sauce to shine through instead of laden, overwrought cheese. 

Scamorza: Such a fun option! It has the strangest look and its smoky flavor amazingly compliments certain other toppings and a slightly charred crust. It's not the easiest to find, but if you do happen to stumble upon it, grab it and make a pizza with it! You won't regret it. It also melts incredibly well. 

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Ricotta: I find that most store bought ricottas can be very "wet," and in some instances, this can prevent your dough from crisping well, sometimes even turning the whole pie somewhat soggy. Furthermore, certain ricottas can taste somewhat plain, bland, or tepid on their own, so I advise seasoning your ricotta — nothing other than salt, pepper, and some Parm can really perk up those ricotta dollops! I'm 100% team dollop, by the way. Some, though, love a thin layer or ricotta underneath the mozzarella, so if that's your jam, go forth and enjoy!

(If you're aiming for a white pie, a cheese sauce — a mornay, a Bechemel with another type of cheese, or some sort of fonduta-esque sauce laden with cheese — is always A+.)

Grated Parmesan, pecorino, locatelli: I think every pie should get a bit of grated cheese before going in the oven, and then a touch more (plus a drizzle of high-quality olive oil) right after coming out of the oven.

Alternatives, like Asiago, fontina, gruyere, burrata and blue: I adore asiago or fontina on pizza. Burrata is always a trendy choice but it can also become a bit too moisture-heavy (like ricotta). And gruyere — which is typically one of my favorite cheeses — doesn't always work ideally on a pizza. On a pie, the blue cheeses are the epitome of "a little goes a long way." You really don't want to use a ton. Some blue cheeses also don't take well to heat, so be mindful of particular ingredients that serve the pizza better as post-oven additions as opposed to items that should be added before baking. Some examples include blue cheeses, arugula, fruits, spinach and fresh basil. 

Vegan or lactose free cheeses: Truthfully, I don't have too much experience with using non-dairy cheeses on pizzas, but I'm sure they're a great approximation of "the real thing." The flavors of non-dairy cheeses have become really stellar in reent years, so I'd venture to check out which have the best melting properties, but of course, it's totally personal preference. 

Clearly, pizza is such a behemoth within the food realm, and there are robust discussions to be had in terms of history, cultural significance, crust, tomato/sauce, variations, toppings, and much more, but this should be a food run down of the fairy component.

Of course, some pizza comes without cheese altogether, but … let's not even get into that.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Abbondanza Cheese Italian American Pizza