Spending $8 on a small container of Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese is preposterous. But for the sake of velvety, Italian cuisine and fancy Spoon articles, I splurged at Publix and bought it.

My favorite recipe to make, Grandma Joyce’s pasta, requires Pecorino so it can be stuffed in gutted, cherry tomatoes with basil. However, this modest recipe is a college luxury since the ingredients are anything but cheap.

All Cheeses Lead To Rome

Mackenzie Patel

Creating Pecorino cheese isn’t rocket science, but its thick, salty flavor is distinctive and goes back to Ancient Roman days. A staple of the army and imperial palaces, Pecorino was distinctive enough to earn a sentence in the writings of Pliny the Elder, a prominent Roman writer, philosopher, and commander.

He wrote, “Of the cheeses that are made beyond sea, that of Bithynia is usually considered the first in quality. That salt exists in pasturelands is pretty evident, from the fact that all cheese as it grows old contracts a saltish flavor…” The trademark of Pecorino is its salty twang, so Pliny was a fan of this Italian delicacy.

Since “pecora” means sheep in Italian, Pecorino cheese comes from the sudsy milk of sheep. As for the process, the milk is heated, enzymes from the sheep’s stomach are added, and curds are formed. The cheese ages for a variety of time (depending on the consumer base) in dark storerooms or caves. And after that? Slice that salty brick for a fruit appetizer or a sprinkling on Grandma Joyce’s specialty.

Why Is Locatelli So Expensive?

goats cheese, dairy product, beer
Mackenzie Patel

If I can buy a few slices of cheddar for $3, why does this fluffy, snow-like cheese cost as much as college textbooks? The Publix brand is around $6, so getting to the bottom of this Locatelli cheese mystery was imperative.

To find out, I researched The Ambriola Company, the entity that imports Locatelli cheese into the United States, and the history of the Locatelli brand.

Sheep Milk Isn't Cheap

flour, sweet, candy
Mackenzie Patel

The sheep’s milk that Locatelli cheese is made with is 100% pure. According to Sargento, processed cheese is only required to have 51% “real” cheese – hence the small Kraft squares of an unnatural color I used to eat as a child.

Locatelli doesn’t contain the preservatives (i.e. artificial coloring, acetic acid, and phosphoric acid) that low brand cheeses do. Being all natural is expensive, so the cost of quality flows down to consumers.

Also, sheep’s milk is rarer than a regular cow’s milk. Per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, cows produced 83% of the world’s milk in 2012 while sheep only produced 1.3%. The law of supply and demand governs everything - Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese included – making sheep’s milk more expensive from the beginning.

Aged Cheese = $$$

sweet, ravioli
Mackenzie Patel

Locatelli is aged for a minimum of nine months, lending a sharp, spicy flavor to its depths. From an accounting perspective, aging cheese is akin to tying up your money in illiquid assets. In simple terms, aging cheese isn’t ready to sell immediately – the producer has to wait, meaning cash flow is limited until months or years in the future.

With less cash on hand in the short term, the seller must hike up the price of finished cheeses to accommodate the “in progress” ones. By contrast, processed cheeses are ready to sell from the outset, making them highly liquid (and profitable) commodities.

Locatelli Cheese Tariffs

Mackenzie Patel

Locatelli cheese is imported from Sardinia and the Lazio Province (which includes Rome) in Italy. The brand originated in 1860 by dairy farmer Mattia Locatelli in Ballabio, Italy. Although I couldn’t find much information on his personal history, the translated Italian websites said Locatelli originally produced gorgonzola cheese and exported it to the UK and South Africa.

As the #1 importer of Italian cheese to the US, Locatelli’s tariff costs (which also get passed on to the consumers) are hefty. According to the 2017 US Tariff Schedule  (yes, I looked it up), the tax rate for imported sheep cheese is 9.6%. If a regular tub of Pecorino cost $6, it’s now $6.58 plus the combined state and county taxes as well.

The price you pay for aged, imported, and high quality queso…

Is Locatelli Worth It?

Although expensive, Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese is worth the extra dollars every few months. It’s the kind of salty that doesn’t feel unhealthy or fattening – on the contrary, Pecorino is light and enlivens olive oil-heavy pasta dishes.

It reminds me of Publix dates and playing with tomato seeds while someone sings Home by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros to me. And home is wherever I’m with Locatelli cheese.