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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