My Affair with the King of Cheese

I was a mere year into my fledgling cheese career when a chef-client made me understand the difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan. I’d learned there were significant technical distinctions between the two cheeses, enough so that most Italians became apoplectic when Americans discussed them interchangeably. But this chef made me feel the differences. There was nothing intellectual about it when, at the onset of what proved to be a very long and expensive meal, he served me an amuse-bouche. That’s the free little “mouth amuser” a restaurant presents before the appetizers, and it’s often a moment when 4-star kitchens cram as much spectacle into a single bite as humanly possible. Massimo instead presented a small white plate, holding a marble-sized nugget of cheese. That was it. 

The bite, he explained, was Parmigiano Reggiano. It had been pried from the heart of an eighty-pound wheel of the cheese, using a short, sharp, spade-shaped tool. The only shame in tasting from the center of the wheel, he lamented, was that the thick, burnished wax rind of the cheese couldn’t be seen. There, branded in black, was the number of the caseificio (dairy) that had produced the wheel. He bought his Parmigiano Reggiano from only two caseifici, depending on the time of year. The wheel had rested, unrefrigerated, overnight to slowly settle at room temperature.  The piece before me was a fine almond color, its uneven edges punctuated by white patches ranging in size from sand grain to sequin. I was to pick the cheese up in my fingers, he said, and breathe deeply before popping the entire chunk into my mouth. I felt a little ridiculous, at this cloth-draped table, meditating over the food in my hands. But I did as instructed and while I inhaled he whispered, “Where were you two and half years ago? What were you doing? What was the weather? What music was playing? Who did you love? While you were experiencing these things, this piece of cheese was being made in the center of Italy, in the heart of Reggio-Emilia.” Wafting off the cheese were the smells of warm milk, roasted almonds, a clean grassiness that reminded me of late-summer haylofts. It was at once familiar and utterly new. I remembered moments of my life-- mundane, messy, ordinary things I hadn’t thought of in years—that were happening as this small bite of food was coming into existence.

As I bit down, there was a simultaneous smear of warm, yielding wax and the crunchy pop of exploding candy. My body’s reaction was primal and immediate: MORE! Parmigiano Reggiano has an unusual balance between the salt of sea water and the sweetness of scalded milk; the cheese’s acidity makes your mouth water intensely; its flavors are reminiscent of toast, and toasted nuts.  I understood immediately why Massimo was offering this to begin the meal. In a single swallow my mouth was awakened and my senses tuned for whatever bite would come next. That was the experiential difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan.

Parmigiano Reggiano has long been called “The King of Italian Cheese.” Its origins date back to the 12th century. As is often the case, it was the monasteries (in this case Benedictine and Cistercian) that made and distributed the cheese.  Today, it is made largely the same way it was nine hundred years ago, and for this reason Parmigiano Reggiano enjoys protected status: what’s called the D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) in Italy and the P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) in the European Union. This name protection is awarded to European foods and beverages whose history, origin and flavor are so particular that the resulting food cannot be duplicated elsewhere. In addition to protecting a food’s name, specific production and aging criteria are also articulated. So, when people ask me why Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan aren’t the same there are numerous and specific answers. Some highlights of what it takes to qualify as Parmigiano Reggiano are: 

  • Milk and cheese production must occur in the region of Reggio Emilia, in Italy, and may occur in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River, and Mantua to the east of the Po River
  • Milk may never be pasteurized (the cheese is always a raw milk, or unpasteurized, cheese and is always made of cow milk)
  • Wheels of cheese are graded for quality after 12 months and those deemed unsuitable for aging to the standard 24 months are removed and sold as something other than Parmigiano Reggiano
  • There are dozens of other criteria that make a Parmigiano Reggiano (see sidebar), all of which contribute to a particular texture and flavor profile that cannot be captured by any other cheese

If all these qualities (and more) make a cheese Parmigiano Reggiano, then what makes a cheese, simply, Parmesan? The origin of American Parmesan (and other Italian-inspired recipes such as Fontina, Gorgonzola and Dry Jack) can be closely traced to regions of the developing United States with pockets of Italian immigrants. Late 19th and early 20th century northern California, for instance, had a large and hungry Italian immigrant population missing the foods of their homeland. Cheesemakers began answering this need with recipes derived from Italy, though necessary tweaks of ingredients and recipes yielded cheeses that were like the homeland original, yet not exactly that same. Parmesan is a grana (grainy) style cheese, meaning it is hard, dry and aged and thus especially well suited to grating and shaving. American Parmesan tends to be significantly younger than Parmigano Reggiano (usually 12 months as opposed to 24). Importantly, it is not matured in open-air aging facilities so it doesn’t develop a thick, hard exterior rind and its texture is moister and mealier than the Italian original. All American Parmesan is made of pasteurized cow milk and its flavor is universally sweeter and more caramelized than the bracing acidity that makes Parmigiano Reggiano so revelatory.

This isn’t to say Parmesan is bad cheese (though some Italian die-hards might argue me on this one). It’s simply different cheese. The best American brands are Rio Briati, Bel Gioioso and Sartori, all of which are readily available at Rouse’s. Many of these come pre-grated or pre-shredded which lots of folks like for convenience. While I’m happy to snack on Parmesan if it’s served to me I hold out for Parmigiano Reggiano. In cooking, its salt and acidity add a dimension and depth of flavor to soups, sauces and salads. That thick, waxy rind is the secret ingredient to my universally loved minestrone. It elevates a bunch of vegetables to the realm of the addictive and savory. But most of all, in my house I serve Parm Reg straight up. We often end a meal with a communally tackled chunk, made vaguely dessert-like with the addition of sweet, grainy fig jam on the side.

While the distinctions between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan are significant, they’re not necessarily immediately obvious. Side by side, the two look kind of the same and smell kind of the same and require thoughtful tasting to appreciate the big differences. This cannot be said of Pecorino Romano and Romano cheese. As Parmesan is the Americanized interpretation of Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano is the Americanized interpretation of the other Italian classic, Pecorino Romano. The similar sounding names are where the commonalities end. Pecorino means sheep, or, technically, “little sheep.”   There are hundreds of pecorinos made in all regions of Italy, some young, some aged, some flavored with herbs or pepper, and others plain. Pecorino Romano, then, is a sheep cheese from Rome. Until the 1950s, all Pecorino Romano was produced in the Roman countryside. Then, the Sardinian-born president of Italy expanded the cheese’s approved production area to include Sardinia, tossing an economic boost to his home region. While Pecorino Romano is still a D.O.P and P.D.O. cheese, there is now a single producer left in the four approved production regions of Lazio (Rome). 

Fulvi is that last Roman maker of a traditionally Roman cheese. Their Pecorino Romano is aged for ten to twelve months, although the P.D.O. guidelines mandate only six months. They milk the traditional sheep of the region, the Sicilian and Soprevisana breeds, which yield less, but richer, milk. As a result, Fulvi Pecorino Romano is firm, moist, and flaky rather than hard, dry, and crumbly. Fulvi still hand salts its wheels, allowing dry salt to migrate into the cheese during aging, rather than brining the cheese and sealing its exterior with a crust. I find Fulvi to be hands down the best brand of Pecorino Romano, but any Pecorino Romano is going to be superior to American Romano. The reason for this is that our interpretation of the original recipe uses cow milk instead of sheep, resulting in a completely different cheese.

Pecorino Romano isn’t a cheese to snack on it. It’s intensely salty, so much so that my tongue feels hairy when I eat it straight (like pineapple, times a hundred). Sheep make milk that’s twice as fatty as cows, so while the cheese is hard and dry, it’s still creamy and rich when you bite into it. The flavor of sheep milk can be strong; it has a gamy quality to it, not unlike rare lamb chops. By itself, this salty, animally flavor can be off-putting but with other foods it’s incredible! It’s better than salt, because you get fat, and a meatiness of flavor. Pecorino Romano is classicly eaten with starchy vegetables like fava beans, or in rich tomato sauces like amatriciana (tomato and bacon). But I love it outside of the cannon. A recent favorite is avocado toast with a fried egg, drizzle of olive oil and a generous Microplaning of Pecorino Romano. The cheese’s flavor is insistent enough to be felt through all the other ingredients, and yet it somehow ties the dish together. American Romano can’t do this for you. It lacks the fat and salt, and by comparison tastes flat and oddly fruity.  

Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are staple cheeses of Italian kitchens, and over the years have become the staples of mine. They last for many weeks, and if a bit of surface mold develops it can be easily scraped off and the cheese beneath enjoyed. Between the two you are well covered for grating, shaving, snacking, pesto, pasta topping, salad enrichment and more. The place these two won’t help you much is the world of melting. For that, and increased flavor variety, I turn to these other Italian classics:

Fontina Fontal: Italians have two Fontinas: one is name protected (D.O.P./P.D.O.) and the other is not. This is the unprotected one. Hailing from the northern region of Lombardy, Fontina Fontal is a pasteurized cow milk cheese with a thin exterior rind of reddish food wax that you should remove (cut off) before use. It’s semisoft and melts like a dream of a cheese river. The mild, milky, only slightly tangy flavor is unlikely to offend anyone. It’s a great substitute for mozzarella, Havarti or Gouda. I use it in everything from quesadillas to scrambled eggs.

Taleggio: Another semisoft cow milk cheese from Lombardy, this guy is name protected (D.O.P./P.D.O.) and among other things must be washed in salt water during its aging process. This develops a sticky, orange rind (it’s edible!) that makes the cheese a bit pungent and imparts a yeasty, mildly nutty flavor. I use it for a fast mac and cheese, melting the cheese down with a bit of milk. Be warned: it stinks more if you heat it.

Caciocavallo Silano: Pronounced Kotch-o Ka-VA-low, this is a pulled curd (pasta filata) cow milk cheese, meaning it’s made like mozzarella. During the cheese making process the curds are dipped in hot water until they’re elastic, and then they’re pulled and stretched until smooth and supple. At this point the cheese is aged until it develops a dense, firm texture. Caciocavallo reminds me of a mellow-tasting Provolone. It melts well and is a great addition to pizza or baked pasta.

Provolone: Don’t confuse imported, aged Italian Provolone with the torpedo-shaped cheese sliced at the deli. Auricchio Provolone is made in several flavor profiles in the region of Cremona. The finished cheese has a savory, beefy, salty flavor which makes it a great meat replacement chunked in a salad. It also melts well though you need to remove the wax rind.

Grana Padano: A D.O.P. unpasteurized cow milk cheese similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. When I’m in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy I find the locals tend to use Grana for cooking and Parm for eating, though not always. A hard, dry, granular cheese, Grana Padano has toasted nutty flavor and is ideal for grating or shaving. 

Piave: Made in the northern Italian region of the Veneto, I think of Piave as one of Italy’s best kept cheese secrets. It’s a hard cow milk cheese, like Parmigiano but not as dry or acidic. That means it’s great for eating straight, and often boasts caramel and pineapple flavors. It’s price is quite manageable, making it a great choice for appetizers or a pre-dinner cheese board. 

Ricotta Salata: Not to be confused with fresh ricotta (which is white, creamy, high in moisture and most likely to appear in your lasagna recipe) Ricotta Salata is a dry, crumbly cheese made from the whey (liquid leftover) of sheep milk. The cheese is bright white and almost squeaky in texture with a clean, light flavor that I love crumbled atop kale salad, steamed or roasted vegetables.

Sidebar: What it Takes to Be Parmigiano Reggiano 

• Milk and cheese production may occur in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna to the west of the Reno River, and Mantua to the east of the Po River.

• Cows are milked twice each day, and milk is taken to the cheese house within two hours of milking.

• Milk is exclusively grass and hay fed. No silage is permitted.

• Milk may never be pasteurized.

• 363 dairies (caseifici) make cheese from the milk of 3,348 producers.

• Evening milk sits unrefrigerated overnight, allowing the cream to separate, after which it is partially skimmed.

• This partly skimmed milk is then added to full-fat morning milk.

• Parmigiano-Reggiano is made in a copper vat.

• Natural whey starters are used for acidification.

• The curd is coagulated, stirred, and broken into tiny granules before being cooked.

• Each vat produces two wheels of cheese, the curds of which are gathered by hand in cheesecloth.

• Each cheese is immersed in brine for twenty days.

• The curds are never pressed.

• Wheels are open-air aged on wooden boards.

• Wheels are graded at twelve months. Those not suitable for aging to the typical twenty-four months are marked with parallel grooves and classified mezzano.

• At the request of a producer, a second inspection may occur at eighteen months for additional certification. Wheels meeting higher standards may be branded “extra” or “export.”

• A red seal indicates a wheel matured for over eighteen months.

• A silver seal indicates a wheel matured for over twenty-two months.

• A gold seal indicates a wheel wheel matured for over thirty months.