Cheese. Who doesn't love it? The variety is immense, and whether you prefers soft, mild cheese or aged, pungent cheese, there is something for almost everyone! But there can be only one "King of Cheese" - Parmigiano-Reggiano, also known as "parmesan" to Americans. Those who are only familiar with the tasteless industrial powder labeled "parmesan" in American supermarkets might ask what makes this cheese so special, but anyone who has had the opportunity to eat a chunk taken directly from the center of an aged wheel of Parmigiana-Reggiano would understand its greatness.
This firm, granular cheese has a long history and has been lauded by such greats as Boccaccio in the 14th century, Samuel Pepys in the 17th century, and even Casanova in the 18th century, but proof of its similar production to what we find today goes back to the 13th century in Babbiano, in the region of Reggio- Emilia.
In fact, like many Italian wines and olive oils, the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano is DOC - or a product that has a protected designation of origin, meaning cheese produced outside of the region cannot call itself by this name. Anything called "parmesan" is simply a knock-off, and it's perhaps more obvious to spot its imposition than any Louis Vuitton or Gucci knock-off purse!
This versatile, ancient cow-milk cheese has an aging process of anywhere from 12-36 months and can be used shaved over pastas, salads, and soups, the rind can be boiled to enhance the taste of soup broths, it can be roasted and served as a snack, it can be served alone as an appetizer, and a hollowed-out wheel can be re-filled with the cheese and served for special occasions, such as wedding receptions.
Be sure to find a good Italian specialty store where you can buy a nice, big wedge! Don't worry, it stores for a long time, and it'll go fast, anyway...)!
Fun Fact: the leftover whey from Parmigiano production is fed to the pigs that produce Parma Ham, aka prosciutto.