When it comes to Italian cheeses, two popular options are Locatelli and Parmesan.
Though they may seem similar at first glance, there are some key differences between these two cheeses that impact their flavor, texture, and best uses.
What is Locatelli Cheese?
Locatelli is a type of Pecorino Romano cheese made from sheep's milk. It hails originally from the Lazio region of Italy, home to Rome and the surrounding "Roman Countryside" known as Ager Romanus where this cheese originated over 2000 years ago.
Today, Locatelli is primarily produced in Sardinia under strict rules and requirements to meet its Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) standards. This includes regulations on the source of milk, production method, aging time, taste profile, and appearance.
Locatelli Pecorino Romano is aged for about 8-12 months. It has a pale white color and darker outer rind. The flavor is tangy, intense, and salty with a buttery finish. The texture becomes crumbly when grated.
Key Takeaway: Locatelli is a varietal of Pecorino Romano cheese made from sheep's milk in Sardinia under strict quality standards.
What Makes Parmesan Cheese Different?
In contrast to Locatelli, Parmesan cheese is made from cow's milk. While Locatelli can only be produced in specific areas of Italy to meet its PDO criteria, Parmesan can be made in a wider range of locations.
True Parmesan that meets regulatory standards has the official name of Parmigiano-Reggiano and can only originate from certain provinces in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Lower quality imitations produced outside of Italy may call themselves Parmesan but do not offer that authentic flavor.
The process for making Parmigiano-Reggiano is highly specialized, from the cows' diet to the aging duration of 12-36 months. This results in a pale yellow cheese with a hard, crumbly texture and tiny white protein crystals.
When tasted, Parmigiano-Reggiano imparts a nutty, fruity flavor that intensifies with longer aging times. The taste becomes more robust and complex while the texture gets crunchier.
Key Takeaway: True Parmesan called Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from cow's milk in a designated part of Italy under careful production methods that impact its trademark flavor and crumble.
Locatelli vs. Parmesan: Key Differences
Now that you understand the background of each cheese, what sets Locatelli and Parmesan apart? Here are the major distinguishing factors:
- Milk Source: Locatelli uses sheep's milk while Parmesan comes from cow's milk
- Region of Origin: Locatelli hails originally from Lazio but is mainly made modernly in Sardinia. Parmesan can only be crafted in Emilia-Romagna to have the Parmigiano-Reggiano name.
- Regulations: Both cheeses have Protected Designation of Origin but the standards differ for each.
- Aging Time: Locatelli ages 8-12 months normally while Parmigiano-Reggiano calls for 12+ months and often over 24.
- Texture: Locatelli is sliceable but also crumbles when grated. Parmesan is hard and crumbly through and through.
- Flavor: Locatelli is intense, tangy and salty. Parmesan has sweet, nutty notes.
With this breakdown, you can clearly see that Locatelli and Parmesan are far from the same cheese, from process to taste. Keep reading to understand how to best use each one.
Best Uses for Locatelli Cheese
The tangy, salty punch of Locatelli makes it a perfect finishing touch for pastas featuring classic Roman flavor profiles. Its sheep's milk origins make Locatelli an excellent choice for these traditional dishes:
- Pasta all'amatriciana: This tube or bucatini pasta dish with tomatoes, guanciale, Pecorino Romano, and spices is a Roman staple.
- Spaghetti cacio e pepe: Meaning "cheese and pepper", this pasta coated in black pepper and melted Pecorino Romano lets the cheese take center stage.
- Pasta alla carbonara: In this rich pasta with eggs, bacon or guanciale, and cheese, Locatelli's saltiness balances the creamy egg sauce.
- Pasta alla gricia: For this variant of cacio e pepe with the addition of crispy guanciale pork, Locatelli completes the Roman flavor trinity.
Beyond pasta, Locatelli also shines in:
- Pizzas: Sprinkle grated Locatelli over pies with tomato sauce and vegetables or meats to finish them like a true Roman would.
- Soups and stews: Add some tang by grating Locatelli over minestrone, vegetable soup, bean-based soups, or hearty meat stews.
- Salads: Toss green, grain, bean, or pasta salads with shredded Locatelli for a salty accent.
- Bruschetta: Top grilled bread with juicy tomatoes, olive oil, and grated Locatelli for the perfect Italian appetizer.
With its pleasant buttery finish, Locatelli can even be enjoyed solo with honey, fruit, or wine. For an authentic Roman delicacy, drizzle it with sweet chestnut honey!
Best Uses for Parmesan Cheese
The crowd-pleasing nuttiness and sweetness of true Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano makes it more versatile for topping or baking into all kinds of Italian foods beyond Rome. Here are some top options for enjoying Parmesan cheese:
- Risottos: Mix grated Parmesan into rice dishes like seafood risotto alla Milanese for a creamy texture and umami richness.
- Pastas: Toss non-Roman pastas such as mushroom rigatoni or roasted red pepper linguine with Parmesan to complement vegetables and lighter sauces.
- Pestos: Parmigiano-Reggiano is the traditional finishing touch for basil or other pesto Genovese sauces on pasta for a nutty finish.
- Baked pastas: For beloved dishes like baked ziti, lasagna, or eggplant Parmesan, mixing Parmesan into the ingredients or sprinkling it on top takes them to new heights.
- Salads: Parmesan elevates fresh insalatas of all kinds from Caesar to Caprese and beyond with its sweet nuttiness.
- Soups: Add another layer of flavor complexity by finishing Italian wedding, tomato basil, or broccoli and cheese soups with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Keep the rinds from Parmigiano-Reggiano wedges to infuse extra cheesy richness into simmering pots of minestrone, chicken stock, lentil soup, and more. You can even bake the rinds into crispy cheese bites for snacking!
For an irresistible Parmesan treat, drizzle wedges with aged balsamic vinegar and eat with fruit, nuts, salad, or charcuterie.
Key Takeaway: Parmesan's versatility makes it ideal for baking into and topping countless Italian dishes for a sweet, nutty flavor accent.
Is Locatelli the same as Parmesan?
No, Locatelli and Parmesan are distinctly different cheeses in terms of process, taste, and best uses as covered earlier. Only Parmigiano-Reggiano can officially be called Parmesan cheese if it meets production regulations in specific Emilia-Romagna provinces. Locatelli is a type of Pecorino Romano sheep's milk cheese crafted in Sardinia and Lazio.
What’s the difference between Pecorino Romano and Parmesan?
Beyond the milk source, the tangy and salty Pecorino Romano is aged for less time at 5-8 months typically, giving it a moister texture and sharper flavor than the sweeter nutty Parmesan aged over 12 months usually. Parmesan also has a firm granular texture while Pecorino Romano is more sliceable.
Is Locatelli better than other Pecorino Romano?
This comes down to personal preference but many cheese aficionados prefer Locatelli over generic Pecorino Romano. By meeting Protected Designation of Origin standards for traditional Lazio-style production, Locatelli offers a more authentic flavor, especially when using sheep's milk from Sardinia's rugged terroir. The strict regulations also ensure consistent quality.
What other Italian cheeses pair well with Locatelli or Parmesan?
- For Locatelli, pair with assertive cheeses like aged Asiago, Piave Vecchio, young Gorgonzola Dolce, or fontina.
- For Parmesan, complement with creamy mozzarella, taleggio, or burrata or pungent Italian blue cheeses for contrast.
- Mixing both Locatelli and Parmesan also balances their opposing flavors nicely in dishes like traditional pesto.
With their similarities of origin, it’s easy to confuse Locatelli and Parmesan cheeses. But as you now know, they differ greatly in production methods and flavor profiles.
Locatelli delivers an intense salty tang as a sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano from Sardinia that accentuates bold Roman pasta dishes in an authentic way.
Parmesan offers a softer, nuttier sweetness as a cow’s milk Parmigiano-Reggiano from Emilia-Romagna that bakes into and rounds out countless Italian foods.