Ask an expert: ‘What’s the difference between Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?’

Why isn't supermarket parmesan cheese the same as Parmigiano Reggiano? Is it really worth paying more? And how should it be eaten?

Ask an expert: 'What's the difference between Italy's Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?'
There's a reason many Italians say Parmigiano Reggiano is 'the king of cheese'. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

You’ve probably heard that the blocks of parmesan in US supermarkets are not the same as the cheeses produced in Italy. But why not, and how much difference does it make?

We asked an expert to answer a few of these common questions from readers who are, of course, also lovers of Italian food.

Isn’t parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano the same thing? 

In a word – no, says Italian food writer Roberto Serra, who was born in the area where Parmigiano Reggiano is made.

“It’s important to know that Parmigiano Reggiano is made in an area that includes three whole cities – Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Modena,” he says.

“The name comes from the first two cities, which are the two most widely involved in the making of this cheese.”

Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made in that specific area, with producers following strict guidelines.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

“To prevent changes from the recipe and to tackle counterfeiting, manufacturers in Parma and Reggio Emilia started to collaborate in the 20th century. In 1928 they established what is today the Consortium for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

“The Consortium issues the guidelines on the production and distribution of Parmigiano Reggiano, and bestows the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status (in Italian, DOP).

“Every year, about 3.7 million wheels are made in the 350 dairy farms that are located in the Parmigiano Reggiano area and follow the Consortium rules. Only those wheels, which have met the PDO requirements, are the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.”


Wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano at a factory in Valestra. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

“What is Parmesan instead? In Europe, the name can be used only to identify the PDO-compliant Parmigiano Reggiano.

“Outside Europe, the term Parmesan is not protected by law, so you will find cheeses labeled “Parmesan” that are Parmigiano Reggiano imitations from the USA, Australia or other countries. 

“That ultimately brings a different product to your tables, with differences in complexity and consistency, since no strict rules have been applied to that cheese.”

Is it worth seeking out (and paying for) authentic Parmigiano Reggiano?

“Believe me, I tried parmesan cheese during my trips to the USA… and if you try Parmigiano Reggiano you will never go back,” says Roberto.

But as it costs nearly 20 euros per kilogram on average in Italy (depending on age), and prices can be much higher abroad, shoppers may wonder if the authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is worth the price.

Roberto insists that it’s money well spent. He points out that “one kilogram of Parmigiano Reggiano requires:

  • 16 liters of fresh milk from grass-fed cows, and no added preservatives
  • The work of lots of cheesemakers
  • at least 12 months of aging (usually I buy 24 or 36 month aged Parmigiano Reggiano).”
A cheesemaker in Gattatico, near Reggio Emilia, uses a hammer to tap the cheese and listen for tones indicating whether it has aged. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

How should it be eaten?

There are a lot of ways to use Parmigiano Reggiano in Italian cuisine, but Roberto’s serving suggestions include:

  • “As an appetizer: in shards, with honey, jam (fig jam is amazing), balsamic vinegar, or fresh fruit (grapes or figs). Always remember: never cut it with a knife, but break the cheese using the tip of it;
  • as a fundamental ingredient of risotto, in the final step (mantecatura): sausage and barbera, pumpkin or fava bean risotto are just some recipe examples.
  • grated on top of pasta: some recipes perfectly pair with Parmigiano Reggiano, including ragù bolognese or tortellini in brodo (broth).”

However, he says there are some dishes he would “definitely not” add it to, like a simple tomato and basil sauce for spaghetti, or fish-based dishes.

“When it comes to wine pairings, Parmigiano Reggiano is pure joy,” Roberto says. “Few foods can be as versatile as the king of cheese: red or white, sparkling or still, it is hard to go wrong.”

“My favorites:

  • white, still: I love white wines from North-Eastern Italy, so I would pick a Collio or Colli Orientali del Friuli from Friuli or a Pinot Grigio from Friuli or Trentino
  • red, still: try Amarone or Barolo with Parmigiano Reggiano for an unforgettable experience;
  • sparkling: here the perfect pairing comes from the territory of the cheese itself. Let’s go to Emilia Romagna and have a good Lambrusco with Parmigiano Reggiano!”

Have you got more questions? Find a complete guide to Parmigiano Reggiano on Roberto’s blog, Eatalian with Roberto.

Member comments

  1. I have always wondered what makes food so special that it can be only produced in a few named places. Why don’t we find it useful to have the same protection for industrial or other products? Let’s say for example that cars could be only called cars if they were manufactured in Turin, computer software from San Francisco, and movies from Hollywood or Cinecitta.

    What makes food/groceries so special that it can’t take the competition? Arguably industrial production couldn’t neither as we don’t have terribly many factories anymore in Europe, but still we didn’t exactly protect them.

    I’m not arguing against DOP as per se but I probably many will agree that the place of origin is not the most important feature of a product but the quality is.

    1. Hi Olli,

      If I may, you’re missing the point of DOP entirely. The French concept of “terroir” captures it well, but the point is that these are very complex agricultural products based on long traditions between people and nature. Many different factors affect the final flavor/quality of agricultural products–the quality of the soil, the diet of animals, the weather that year, the training of the artisans, in the case of Parma ham: the “flavour of the Versilia wind”… Whether or not you believe that wind can affect flavour customers find a kind of romance in these stories which gives DOP products value beyond their imitators.

      In short, you can’t compare apples with alfas, since this ignores all of the important differences in the way that things are produced which determine their “quality”–which is what you say people are mostly interested in.

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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.