Protected Designation of Origin items give American restaurants the best Italy has to offer.
Pop open a bottle of Champagne and you’ll know exactly where it came from based on the name. Similarly, pair a piece of Grana Padano with that champagne, and you’ll know it came from the Po Valley region of Italy, made with milk from cows grazing in that climate and terrain.
While Americans love to toss around the words local and terroir all the time, the Europeans were the first to literally put their stamp on those terms. The Protected Designation of Origin (pdo in English, dop in Italian) seal validates certain high-quality foods made in Italy, including more than 150 types of cheeses, salumi, sausage, honey, potatoes, and more. When buyers purchase a PDO-certified product, they know it was produced in a strictly defined geographic region using age-old recipes, techniques, and methods.
“The label is your guarantee of authenticity,” says Fabio Viviani, the Florence-born chef and partner of Siena Tavern and Prime & Provisions in Chicago, Osteria in Los Angeles, and other concepts, as well as a “Top Chef” personality. “Many food makers try to copy or do their own version of Italian products, but the PDO seal guarantees that the product went through a specific series of steps, procedures, and even controls for food safety.”
The terroir in Parma, Italy, where Prosciutto di Parma originates, for example, varies greatly from, say, other parts of Europe or America where artisans might try to replicate the Italian ham with commercial air conditioning or excessive salting. In the hills of the Emilia-Romagna region, pigs destined to become ham feast on acorns from the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, a mild, mineral-heavy breeze from the sea on the Versilia coast gently blows through the olive and pine tress of the nearby Magra Valley, becoming drier and delivering the fragrance of chestnut trees as it rushes over the Apennine passes and into the open-window curing rooms where the prosciutto ages. All this has a noticeable affect on the delicacy’s natural taste and texture, says Vincenza Kelly, marketing and promotion officer for the Italian Trade Commission.
To earn the seal, food makers must apply to the consortium, or independent governing board of inspectors, for that particular product and go through a series of audits to ensure the product was made in that geographic region and according to the consortium’s strict processes and rules, Kelly says. Many of these groups have existed since the 1950s, when there was a push to authenticate artisan products that had been made the same way in Italy for centuries. In 2013, the European Union brought the consortium products together under one regime that could be more easily enforced and authenticated by governing bodies.
“PDOs are generally thought of as the strictest of the protected geographic designations,” Kelly says. Here’s a look at some of the most common PDO products available to U.S. chefs and restaurants.
Prosciutto di Parma
Once enjoyed by Ancient Romans, Prosciutto di Parma this year celebrates 25 years of being exported to the U.S., though a consortium has monitored its production since 1963.
“Prosciutto di Parma is an Italian staple, and probably one of the most famous imports from Italy,” Viviani says.
Marked by its PDO seal depicting a fire-branded, five-pointed Parma Crown reflective of a time when the Duchy of Parma ruled the region, the prosciutto is made only in the city of Parma using specific Italian pig breeds, sea salt, air, and time to age (a minimum of 400 days).
Sweet and delicate in flavor, chefs like Viviani serve Prosciutto di Parma simply, sliced thin on cheese boards and atop sandwiches and salads. It can also withstand some heat as a pizza garnish or wrapped around a piece of fish. Even the fat rendered from Prosciutto di Parma lends a unique nutty flavor when blended into vinaigrette.
Prosciutto di San Daniele
Produced only in the hilly Friuli Venezia Giulia region in Northeastern Italy, Prosciutto di San Daniele has a recognizable guitar-like shape and SD seal of authenticity, having been recognized by the Italian government in 1970.
Like its di Parma rival, it’s made only from Italian-born and bred pigs and sea salt. Processing must occur fast, as any freezing of the meat is strictly forbidden, and the prosciutto must be aged for at least 13 months. Rumor has it the prosciutto from this area was enjoyed as far back as 2,000 years ago.
With a shorter curing time, Prosciutto di San Daniele has an even more delicate, subtle flavor than others, and the warm, salty breeze sweeping off the Adriatic Sea gives the salumi a mineral-forward, aromatic taste. As such, Viviani showcases the prosciutto as is, often paired with stone fruit, melons, and figs.
“I prefer Prosciutto di San Daniele for salads because of its more pronounced prosciutto flavor and delicate texture,” Viviani says. He’s served the prosciutto atop a salad of broiled peaches, red onion, and mint, and he’s wrapped it around apple slices, goat cheese, and basil for a refreshing appetizer.
First created by monks in the Padana Valley in 1135, Grana Padano originates in central Italy, where the climate passes through distinct cycles, from dry, sunny springs to hot and humid summers and cold winters.
“This affects the way the cows pasture and what they eat throughout the year,” Kelly says. “We’ve seen cheesemakers in Wisconsin and California try to mimic Italian-style Grana Padano, but the climate is very different in those areas compared to in Italy.”
Today, the consortium for the protection of Grana Padano, founded in 1954, encompasses 147 producers that create more than four million wheels per year, making the cheese the most widely sold PDO cheese in the world.
“Grana Padano is an old Italian favorite when it comes down to hard grating cheese,” says Viviani, who uses Grana Padano in soups and pastas, and by itself as a standout for a cheese board. “It has a very grainy, very mineral, nutty flavor, but it’s still very delicate. I prefer it over other sharper, more aged cheeses like Parmesan because it blends better with other ingredients, rather than overpower them.”
For a creamy cauliflower soup with leeks and crème fraiche, Viviani swirls in grated Grana to add body and earthiness. He’s even used leftover rinds to flavor soups, stocks, and broth to reduce waste.
The tiny dotted lines spelling out “Grana” on the PDO seal refers to the grainy and crumbly texture of the cheese, while “Padano” refers to its origin in the Po River Valley. The cheese is made from partially skimmed raw milk that’s aged at least nine months and up to 24 months or more for a richer flavor.
This cow’s milk cheese originates from the mountain regions of Friuli and eastern Veneto, at the Northeastern-most corner of Italy, where cheesemakers use hand-processed traditions tracing back to a 17th century monastery. The PDO stamp depicts an “M” in the shape of a mountain range.
Kelly says the cheese is aged in different stages of maturity, from mild-tasting Fresco (60–120 days) and Mezzano (121 days to 10 months) to fuller-bodied and nuttier Stagionato (10–18 months).
“Montasio is one of my favorite Italian cheeses, but it is not widely available in the United States yet because of the very limited production,” Viviani says. “It’s an extremely versatile melting cheese that I like to use for lasagna, on top of pastas, and in sandwiches.”
Viviani looks to specialty food distributors to source the cheese that he’s also used in a vegetable quiche and paired with Prosciutto di San Daniele, apricot jam, and crunchy walnuts for a warm sandwich on rustic bread.
“The cow’s milk cheese has a milder, nuttier flavor with a good balance of concentrated sweetness and saltiness,” he says. “Think of it this way: If Montasio was an all-American cheese, a grilled cheese sandwich made with Cheddar would have no chance against it.” υ