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Our Experts Answer All Your Italian Cooking Questions

We've tapped our pros to set the facts straight about olive oil, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto, and more.

Is there a difference between parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese — and does it really matter? What is the best olive oil to buy? And are all balsamic vinegars created equal?

To find the difference between some of the most popular Italian products, we gathered a group of our experts, like Cathy Strange, Vice President of Specialty and Innovation; Doug Bell with Adult Beverage Innovation; and Morgan Drummond, Senior Category Merchant and certified Extra Virgin Olive Oil Savante. Get their buying tips, plus their top picks for popular Italian products.

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Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano Reggiano vs. Parmesan

Cathy Strange
Vice President of Specialty and Innovation

If I want a really special cheese, it’s Parmigiano Reggiano, no question. It’s known as the true King of Cheese and it’s a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). The animals that produce the milk have to be from a certain place, the feed they eat has to come from a certain place and the milk itself has to meet certain criteria. It has to be made in a copper vat. If all of the regulations for producing the cheese aren’t met, you’re not allowed to use the pindots or the Parmigiano Reggiano seal.

Ours is aged for a minimum of 24 months, and every wheel is hand-cracked in our stores. If you haven't tried this cheese right after it’s been cracked, I highly recommend it. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Cathy’s Pick: Parmigiano Reggiano, cracked fresh in our stores February 22 at 3 pm local time.

Prosciutto di Parma vs. Prosciutto

Cathy Strange

Prosciutto di Parma is a truly unique ham. Like some of the best specialty products from Italy, it’s about great ingredients (Prosciutto di Parma is made of two ingredients: Italian-born and -bred pigs and sea salt), traditional techniques and letting time and a specific environment do their thing.

Prosciutto di Parma is made in Emilia Romagna — the same home of Parmigiano Reggiano and traditional balsamic vinegar — and relies on the breezes that flow from the Adriatic Sea to the Italian Alps, giving the final product its trademark sweet flavor. It’s best enjoyed in paper-thin slices so that the flavors and fat almost seem to melt on your tongue.

Cathy’s Pick: Principe Prosciutto di Parma

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil from Italy vs. Olive Oil

Morgan Drummond
Senior Category Merchant and certified Extra Virgin Olive Oil Savante

Extra-virgin Italian olive oil starts with Italian olive trees. While olive trees originated from Greece, it was the Romans who ultimately perfected the art of manufacturing olive oil in Italy and established the traditions that make olive oil production what it is today.

Juicy Italian olives are harvested at peak ripeness starting in October through December (depending on the olive varietal and region where they’re grown). Extra-virgin olive oil is cold-processed to gently separate the oil from the pulp. Carefully grinding the olive fruits helps to preserve the oil’s inherent flavor characteristics and fragrance of the olive varietal. I look for extra-virgin olive oils with flavor profiles that vary from fruity, bitter and pungent. (If you’ve never tasted extra-virgin olive oil straight, know that it’s totally normal to feel a little throat tingle or slight burn at the back of your throat!) For dressing vegetables and finished dishes, I like to use an unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil — the oil’s cloudy look is made up of olive particles leftover from skipping the last round of filtering.

Morgan’s Pick: 365 by Whole Foods Market Unfiltered Italian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Traditional Aged Balsamic Vinegar vs. Balsamic Vinegar

Cathy Strange

Traditional aged balsamic vinegar is made in Modena, Italy, with nothing but the concentrated juice of grapes. The magic happens over time, and it just can’t be rushed. It takes years to get to the final product. As the syrupy juice ages, it evaporates, and the liquid is moved to progressively smaller wooden barrels. The results are dark, syrupy and rich, with a balance of sweetness and acidity. While balsamic vinegars are great for dressing salads, a drizzle of traditional aged balsamic vinegar is perfect for topping ripe fruit or finishing grilled vegetables or meats. For a special treat, spoon berries and aged balsamic vinegar on top of gelato.

Cathy’s Pick: Casa Forcello Strawberry Balsamic Compote

Italian wine vs. Wine

Doug Bell
Adult Beverage Innovation

Capturing Italy in a glass is something really special. From Barolo to prosecco, you can’t go wrong with our Italian wines that span Italy’s wine-growing regions. Curated by our team of wine professionals, you’ll find more than the usual chiantis and pinot grigios (don’t worry, we have those too). Our Italian wines are available at several price points, and they’re ready to pair with dinner — or, of course, with Italian cheeses.

Doug's Pick: Criterion Barolo

Must be 21+ to purchase. Please drink responsibly.

Visit our stores to discover even more Italian favorites in our aisles, like pastas, gelato, imported Italian sodas and more!

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