Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, dry cheese made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk. It has a hard pale-golden rind and a straw-colored interior with a rich, sharp flavor. Parmigiano-Reggianos are aged at least two years. Those labeled stravecchio have been aged three years, while stravecchiones are four or more years old. Their complex flavor and extremely granular texture are a result of the long aging.
Parmigiano-Reggiano has been called the "King of Cheeses."
The words Parmigiano-Reggiano stenciled on the rind mean that the cheese was produced in the areas of Bologna, Mantua, Modena, or Parma (from which the name of this cheese originated). Parmesans are primarily used for grating and in Italy are termed grana, meaning "grain," referring to their granular textures. Within Italy, cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano are also called grana. Many of these cheeses are delicious in their own right. An example is the cheese Grana Padano.
The name Parmigiano is used in parts of Italy for grana cheeses that don't meet protected designation of origin requirements for Parmigiano-Reggiano, such as specific areas of production, what the cattle eat, lengthy aging and so on.
Under Italian law, only cheese produced in these provinces may be labeled "Parmigiano-Reggiano," and European law classifies the name, as well as the translation "Parmesan," as a protected designation of origin.
Therefore, within the European Union, per D.O.C. regulations, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the same cheese.
Parmesan is the English and American translation of the Italian word Parmigiano-Reggiano. There is also evidence that in the 17th to 19th centuries Parmigiano-Reggiano was called Parmesan in Italy and France.
In the United States, the word "Parmesan" is not regulated. A cheese labeled as Parmesan in the United States might be genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it's more likely to be an imitation. Most U.S. versions are typically aged a minimum of 10 months.
Parmesan cheese is also made in Argentina and Australia, but none compares with Italy's preeminent Parmigiano-Reggiano, with its granular texture that melts in the mouth. Parmesan cheeses in other countries have comparatively lax regulations.
More About D.O.C. Regulations
D.O.C laws are meant to preserve the integrity of traditional Italian food products by ensuring the flavor and quality.
D.O.C. laws require Parmigiano-Reggiano to be made according to a specific recipe and production methods only within the provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, and specific regions in the provinces of Bologna and Mantua.
Does "Imitation" Parmesan Taste Good?
A cheese labeled as Parmesan in the U.S. that is not genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano still can be a tasty cheese. Many artisanal cheesemakers are making high-quality cheeses that are inspired by Parmigiano-Reggiano. Many large cheese producers sell decent Parmesan. Is the flavor as complex as genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano?
You be the judge. Buy both and taste them side by side.
Pre-grated Parmesan is available but in no way compares with the freshly grated cheese—save your money. Both domestic and imported Parmesans are available in specialty cheese stores, Italian markets, and many supermarkets.
Confused? Then ask the cheesemonger before you buy. They should be able to tell you if the Parmesan you're buying is the real deal or not.