What it is: Made from the raw, skimmed milk of specially fed cows, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a granular, Italian hard cheese, aged at least 18 months, with a salty, nutty flavor.
Where it comes from: Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced exclusively in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna. This style of cheese dates back at least until the 1200s, and continues to be made in much the same way it was produced centuries ago.
A product with the Protected Designation of Origin, each wheel of authentic Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano is stenciled with dots reading “Parmigiano-Reggiano” plus the identification number of dairy, the production month and year, the initials “D.O.P.” and the words “Consorzio Tutela”; a further inscription shows the production year, the initials “C.F.P.R.” and a code identifying the individual wheel. Finally, on packaged cheeses, one of three stamps identifies the minimum maturity of the cheese: Red Seal cheeses are matured for more than 18 months. Silver Seal cheeses age for more than 22 months, and strongly flavored Gold Seal parmesans matured for more than 30 months.
What to do with it: Eat Parmigiano-Reggiano in small chunks, simply accompanied with bread or fruit or a dash of balsamic vinegar. Grate, shave or sliver it over pasta, vegetables, salads, casseroles or whatever strikes your fancy, or stir it into any dish to add richness and complexity. At Carlucci in Downers Grove, Chef Kevin Provenzano tosses linguini inside a hollowed out wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“The linguini is one of Carlucci’s signature dishes,” he says. “Our guests are entertained as we toss the dish tableside and love the way the pasta is spooled onto the fork. I especially have a soft spot for this dish, because it is my family’s favorite pasta.”
The average whole Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel is between 7 and 9 inches high, 16 to 18 inches in diameter, weighs 75 to 80 pounds and costs over $1,000. Even the eighth of a wheel the restaurant uses is likely to be more expensive than most households can justify, but it does make for a dramatic presentation.
Carlucci’s linguini with fresh basil, prosciutto di Parma, butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano
Chef Kevin Provenzano
12 ounces linguini4 ounces unsalted butter6 ounces prosciutto di parma, cut into matchsticks1/2 cup lightly packed slivered fresh basil1/2 cup grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano or grana padano cheese1/8 wheel of Parmiggiano-Reggiano or grana padano cheese, carved down about 1-1/2 inches to resemble a bowl (optional)4 paper thin slices prosciutto di Parma4 whole leaves fresh basil
Cook the pasta according to package directions. When the pasta has only a couple of minutes left to cook, heat a saute pan large enough to hold all the pasta over medium-high heat.
Add the butter, and when the melted butter has stopped foaming, add the prosciutto matchsticks and half of the basil, stir often. Cook for only about 1 minute. Take off the heat.
Drain the pasta, saving about 3/4 cup of pasta water for the sauce. Add the pasta to the butter in the saute pan with the grated cheese and rest of the basil. Toss well. Add a little pasta water to achieve a creamy consistency. Season to taste.
Put the pasta into the cheese bowl. Using a fork and spoon, mix the pasta around the bowl while scraping cheese from the bottom and sides of the bowl.
Using the fork and spoon, spool the pasta onto the fork and transfer to a plate with one slice of prosciutto on it. Garnish each plate with a fresh whole basil leaf. 4 servings.