Walking through the narrow doorway of Luciano and Cinzia Bussu’s Casa del Formaggio on Via Mazzini, buyers are pressed against the cheese counter. There’s hardly any space to move, just one aisle going through the tiny store with the local cheeses in the cooler on the left, green grapes and nectarines on the right, and shelves above filled with canned olives, wine and random items such as laundry detergent.
The Bussus stock most of the great cheeses of Urbino. They’re passionate about cheese – mostly “sheep’s cheese,” as Cinzia says in excellent English she learned in school. “Twenty-one years ago, my husband opened this shop with his mother because the family produced their own cheeses in Urbino. They bought a farm here in 1965 and made their cheeses at home and sold them here and other shops around the province. Their cheeses were very popular,” Cinzia says.
The two make an attractive couple. Cinzia, the mother of two little girls, 3 and 8, slices samples of a sweet and savory Casciotta d’Urbino for customers while maintaining two simultaneous conversations with her husband. Luciano, a tall, balding man dressed in an apron and shorts, is the store owner. He smiles frequently and exudes a muscular charm, talking and gesturing excitedly about his family’s vocation while slicing up prosciutto and other large wheels of cheese.
“He’s the owner. I’m the wife,” Cinzia says, casting a glance at him. She is small in stature and has lively, searching eyes. She announces several times that she is not an employee of the shop and only works Saturdays to help him out.
The most popular cheeses in Urbino include Casciotti d’Urbino – “It’s a mixed cheese from sheep and cow milk, sweeter than the cheeses just from sheep milk,” Luciano says with Cinzia translating. To the taste, the cheese is sweeter and milder even than a standard pecorino, another local cheese from sheep milk. Ricotta is also a favorite; it requires a complex, time-consuming process which includes saving the whey (siero) from a cheese pot, filtering out as many curd particles as possible, and allowing the whey first to sit at room temperature to develop acidity. After 12 or more hours, the whey is then boiled into a white foam, removed from heat, and the curds are eventually strained to form the ricotta. “It’s work that requires a lot of passion,” Luciano says, with Cinzia translating.
After his parents moved out of Urbino to another part of Italy a few years back, Luciano stopped making cheese and now he just buys his products from local producers. Aside from pecorino, ricotta, and Casciotta Di Urbino, Le Marche produces a Formaggio di Fossa from such towns as Sogliano al Rubicone (nearly Rimini) and Talameno. The cheese is biting, hard in texture, and yellow-green/gray in color. It also smells ripe and mildewy.
“During World War II people dug special holes in the ground to hide their food,” Cinzia explains. “They discovered that if they put cheese together with paglia (beds of straw) they get a cheese that tastes particularly savory.”
People in Le Marche eat Formaggio di Fossa with marmalade and honey, a combination that produces bitter-sweet sensations and savory ripeness in the mouth. The cheese goes well with dessert and hearty red wines, especially the local Sangiovese red grapes, Cinzia says, pointing to the many bottles on her shelves.
Another popular cheese is Formaggio al Tartufo, made with black truffles, mostly “because the white truffles are more expensive,” Luciano explains. Even local cheeses are pricey, though, running about 14.50 euro for a kilo of sheep cheese and 28 euro for a kilo of truffle cheese. Ironically, foreigners like the truffle cheese, which is sweet and savory. The more economically minded locals prefer to keep truffles out of their cheeses. “Truffles are for tourists,” Cinzia says. “People here like the sharp cheeses that are more affordable.”