It’s not called the king of cheeses for nothing, people. Authentic, artisanal, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano—easily identified by the markings of origin impressed upon the sides of every wheel produced, listing the cheese name, the cheese house, and the month and year of production—is nothing like that generic, comparatively tasteless “Parmesan” cheese you’ll run into elsewhere. Which is all the more reason you must eat it in its place of origin, Emilia-Romagna.
Like Modena’s balsamic vinegar, this centuries-old cheese is classified as “Protected Denomination of Origin” (or Denominazione di Origine Protetta, DOP, in Italian) by the EU and strictly quality-controlled by an Italian consortium: To guard against imitators, Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be called so if it’s produced in specific Emilia-Romagna provinces (Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, Mantua). The dairy cows that produce it must be fed only local grasses and natural vegetable feed; no additives can go into their milk; after careful cooking, forming into wheels, and salting, the cheese must age for at least 12 months (but often 24 months), at which time it is closely inspected by an “expert.” The process is no joke!
The finished product—hard and granular, with a crumbly, crystalline structure and a delicate, savory flavor, at turns nutty and creamy and grassy—is as much a celebration of the region’s historic culinary landscape as it is of the cheese-maker’s impeccable execution of an ancient skill.
Where: Happily, Parmigiano-Reggiano is everywhere you look in Emilia-Romagna, particularly in Parma and Modena. It is always lovely grated or in slivers atop certain pastas, but this cheese truly deserves center stage, so look for it offered solo on antipasti menus. Our picture is from the excellent, family-owned Trattoria Vigolante (0521-671143; Via Valera di Sopra 112) in the countryside about 2 km (1.2 miles) outside of Parma, just down the road from a Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy farm and agriturismo.
When: Open for lunch and dinner Wed-Sun.
Order: Hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano drizzled with fine, aged, locally produced aceto balsamico—this is the epitome of Slow Food and the ideal appetizer in all of Emilia-Romagna. Sweet, savory, robust perfection. Also superb here is the tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms, the hearty gnocchi with shaved black truffles, and the balsamico-glazed duck.
Alternatively: Of the many restaurants featuring Parmigiano-Reggiano front and center on their menus, in Parma there’s also the beloved Trattoria del Tribunale (Vicolo Politi 5, map) and Gallo d’Oro (Borgo della Salina 3, map), where you can order it singly or on a platter with other formaggi like Brie, Gorgonzola, and pecorino.